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KOKSIJDE, Belgium (VN) — Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet-Euphony) staged an incredible come-from-behind performance on Saturday to snatch a World Cup victory from a stunned Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus).
Barely inside the top 20 early on, a determined Nys rode himself into contention with three laps to go, riding where others had to run on the damp, sandy 3km circuit. Two riders who had enjoyed better starts — Sunweb-Revor teammates Kevin Pauwels and Klaas Vantornout — both hit the deck on a slick, greasy meadow section, and it was that same section that gave Nys the edge he needed as he closed in on the front of the race, picking off rider after rider until he sat second behind the world champion.
When Albert slid out there, too, just barely managing to stay upright, Nys slipped past and into the lead, then rode a sandy hill that set the rainbow jersey afoot.
And then Albert simply gave up — he watched in disbelief as Nys accelerated up and over the hill and then rode away from him, toward a solo victory that seemed impossible only a few minutes earlier.
“I didn’t think that Sven would be able to accelerate like that in the finale and on that slope. I was really surprised,” said Albert. “My plan was actually to attack on that last stretch of sand, but that mistake in the meadow left me behind Sven.
“I just had no answer to Sven’s acceleration. During the warm-up I was able to ride that climb, but in the last lap I couldn’t. After being on the front for so long, every lap I had to make a new line [in the sand], and I really felt it by the end.”
It was a fast finish for a slow starter — Nys conceded that he was not as quick off the line as some of his rivals and had to work his way patiently through the field.
“Then it was just motivation, because you can see that the other riders aren’t really riding well though the sand, so you need to wait, try to stay focused, and then find a gap where you can pass and do what you want to do,” he said. “And after three or four laps I felt that I was pretty strong today and could win the race.”
And win it he did, leaving the world champion to finish second, 15 seconds behind, while Francis Mourey (FDJ-Big Mat) crossed third at 20 seconds.
Fast off the line
Lars Van Der Haar (Rabobank-Giant) and Vantornout battled for the holeshot, and then Vantornout settled quickly into the lead as Albert had trouble in the sand early on, botching a remount on a descent. Radomir Simunek (BKCP) sat second as first Steve Chainel (FDJ), then Bart Wellens (Telenet-Fidea) were the first to come to grief on that greasy stretch.
Vantornout was on fire, taking a solid four-second lead at the end of the first lap. Bart Aernouts (AA Drink) led the chase with Pauwels on his wheel, while Albert and Nys were well back in traffic.
The pursuit latched onto Vantornout early in lap two, and the Sunweb man headed a long line of riders snaking around the sandy, rolling course, with Nys sitting 17th. Aernouts and Vantornout kept trading the lead, while Pauwels held to third, six seconds behind.
By the end of lap two. Pauwels was closing on the leaders. Vantornout gave it some gas coming off the tarmac and into the sand, gapping Aernouts just as Pauwels caught him. Then Pauwels moved past into second and it was two Sunwebs off the front.
Sunweb takes command
Mourey and Thijs Van Amerongen (AA Drink) latched on and the foursome took a small advantage over the others. Albert and Nys were gradually working their way forward, moving into the top 10.
And then Albert latched onto the front group as Pauwels, then Mourey took the lead. Nys was dangling just off the back.
With five to go Mouray had surged to the front, leading the two Sunwebs and Albert. Nys was stuck in no-man’s land, just seconds behind the lead group, which grew to six — Mourey, Pauwels, Albert, Aernouts, Vantornout and Van Amerongen.
Nys sneaked into eighth place as Meeusen crashed on the same slick stretch that earlier claimed Wellens, and with four laps to go Albert was in charge, with the Belgian champion chasing some five seconds back.
Pauwels, Vantornout crash
As Albert set the pace, Pauwels crashed heavily on that treacherous straightaway and got up limping, trying to wrench his bars back into position. Shortly thereafter Vantornout went down, too, and the complexion of the race changed dramatically — Albert was still in command, but Aernouts was now in second with Mourey third and the surging Nys fourth.
Three laps to go saw Albert and Mourey race across the line together, with a slight advantage over Aernouts and Nys just seconds behind. The world champ then opened the throttle, gapping Mourey, as behind Nys moved into third ahead of a tiring Aernouts
Albert extended his advantage over the Frenchman on a hilly stretch, but behind — riding where the others were running — Nys disposed of Aernouts after he bobbled on a sandy rise and set out after the two leaders.
With two to go Albert held three seconds over Mourey and a further four seconds over Nys.
Nys moves forward
But Nys caught Mourey on a stretch that he could ride while the Frenchman ran, and slipped past him into second. Albert glanced over one shoulder to see Nys in the runner-up spot and quickly got back to business. Aernouts had slipped to fourth, a ways back.
Nys and Mourey hovered at seven seconds as they chased Albert around the circuit. Then Nys finally shed the Frenchman and went after the leader, catching him after a short piece of pavement connecting two long sandy stretches.
Bell lap saw a familiar picture — Albert in front, with Nys on his wheel. Mourey followed at seven seconds down, with Aernouts a distant fourth.
Albert took a couple bike lengths early in the lap, an advantage that became three seconds on a grassy stretch, but Nys erased it in the sand.
The rainbow jersey accelerated again going up a slight rise, but Nys followed. Another jump, another catch.
And then Albert fishtailed in the same slippery section that had ruined so many others’ races, and Nys went wide left, at last edging into the lead. Albert never went down — he threw out his right leg and stayed upright — but when he saw Nys power up a hill that put him afoot, the will to win went right out of him.
As Nys rode alone to the victory, Mourey rode back up to Albert, and it seemed the Belgian might cede another step on the podium. But he pulled himself back together in time to coast across the line for second.
“This is a special race,” said Nys. “With the sand, when you have good technique, it’s possible to do something. You can close a 10-second gap in one section of sand, that we saw today. All you need to have is good form, good position on the bike, feel really well, really motivated, even if you’re 25th or 25 seconds behind.
“Maybe tomorrow [my good results] are finished, but I try to go as hard as possible and to win as many races as possible. For the moment it’s going really well. We’ll see what happens, but right now I’m just trying to go day by day.”
As for Albert, he said he did the best he could against against a clearly on-form Nys.
“I came here to win, but I could only get second. This was the best possible, I think,” he said. “Sven is just better right now, so losing to him is just part and parcel of life. I’m not going to lose sleep over this and I’m definitely not going to cry about it.”
Albert continues to lead the World Cup series with 215 points to Nys’ 185. The next round of the World Cup will be December 2 at Roubaix.
Editor’s note: Dan Seaton contributed to this report.