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RONSE, Belgium (VN) — Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) won the GP Mario De Clercq on Sunday.
It was a near thing — the world champion was alone off the front on the bell lap, but Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor) was closing in, and Albert looked to be running out of steam.
But he dug deep, hit the finishing straight first and dragged himself to the victory just seconds ahead of a goggle-eyed Pauwels, who dropped his head to the handlebars in exhaustion and disappointment as he rolled across the line.
Albert was spent, too.
“This course is always up and down, there’s running, it’s very, very tough,” he said. “The finish was like a climbing time trial on the road, and I felt my legs like if I had climbed L’Alpe d’Huez or Angliru.”
At midrace the two men had been working together off the front, chased some 19 seconds down by Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet), who had gotten off to a poor start. With him were Bart Aernouts (AA Drink) and Bart Wellens (Telenet-Fidea).
Next time through the start finish the leaders had padded their advantage to 24 seconds. Nys was still leading Aernouts, but Wellens was gone.
As Pauwels and Albert battled up front, so did Nys and Aernouts.
Albert laid down a powerful attack and put some daylight between himself and Pauwels, about five seconds’ worth. Hitting the pavement at 28 minutes in he seemed committed to the move and pressed onward.
Behind, Aernouts was glued to Nys’ wheel, but the two were 46 seconds down. He took the front of the chase when Nys was forced to run an off-camber, downhill left-hand hairpin that had been bedeviling him, but the Belgian champ soon resumed control.
Forty-five minutes in Albert had extended his lead over Pauwels, who was looking like a beaten man.
Behind, Nys punched it and rid himself of Aernouts, but he had left it too late. Going into bell lap Albert was 10 seconds ahead of Pauwels, and the Belgian champion was 52 seconds down.
“When you have a bad start like I did, it’s really hard to come back,” said Nys. “In the front were two guys who were riding together and I was in the back by 20 seconds and riding alone, and it’s not possible to ride faster than them, and it’s not technical enough for me to close the gap in one or two laps.”
A resurgent Pauwels made a valiant chase on the final lap as Albert seemed finally to tire, closing to within five seconds of the world champion.
But Albert was first to the tarmac and gave it everything he had. One quick look under the arm and he was celebrating, just seconds ahead of a dejected Pauwels. Nys crossed alone for third, more than a minute down.
American Jonathan Page, who finished 18th, said it was “a really demanding race.”
“It’s just tough cyclocross — it will make a man or a mouse out of you, and today I guess I was a little of both,” he added. “I was happy with the way I rode my race. Last week I wasn’t myself; this week I was really racing, I was definitely a little better. I definitely gave it my all, and I was happy to be able to do that.”
Editor’s note: Stay tuned for photos from Ronse.