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Zdenek Stybar rode a near-perfect race to solo into the rainbow jersey in front of a wild home crowd over snow, ice and mud in Sunday’s men’s cyclocross world championships.
The reigning World Cup champion topped back-to-back silver medals in 2008-09 by adding the world title to his fast-growing trophy case after dominating the action in the nine-lap race.
“I gave everything and the last two or three laps, my legs were cramping up,” said Stybar. “I knew all I had to do was to keep going because the cramps would end and I would be champion in front of my nation.”
Stybar overcame an opening-lap bike change to surge from 12th position into the lead by lap 3 and soloed home ahead of a pair of stubborn Belgian riders — 21 seconds clear of Klaas Vantornout and 38 seconds ahead of 2005 world champ Sven Nys.
“I had it lined up in my head quite well, because I knew that a moment like this could come. I stayed behind French rider (Francis Mourey) and was able to come back to the front,” Stybar said of his bike change. “I was riding on the edge the entire race. There was not a place I held back. I gave it all and I knew I gave all I could.”
While things stacked up in Stybar’s favor, the consistent Nys admitted he was jinxed from the start. He was forced to make a bike change just as Stybar made his race-winning acceleration in lap 3.
“The worlds are a special race and everything has to be perfect to win. My condition was OK, but in the technical zones when I am normally very good, I was not,” Nys said. “The moment Stybar made his gap, I was changing my bike. I was stuck behind (Christian) Heuele, who was not the best guy to be second. I kept (Stybar) at 15-17 seconds, then I crashed and it was over for me for the gold.”
The 3.1km Tabor course served up a stiff challenge, with a mix of snow, ice, mud and lots of sand, which drew criticism from some riders as an unnecessary step to try to enhance safety that perhaps made the course even more difficult than if handlers had just left it alone.
“It was a track like real cyclocross,” Vantornout said. “It was slippery, icy and challenging. I would have liked to have won, but Stybar was very strong. I was second in the nations behind strong Sven Nys and today strongest behind Skybar. I am very satisfied and considering the circumstances, I am very satisfied.”
Johnson leads in the Americans
The Americans battled gamely through extreme conditions. Tim Johnson led the way for the U.S. team with a solid 14th at 2:28 after elbowing his way through the hectic opening laps.
Starting in the third row and wearing special sheet-metal screws in his cleats that allowed him to pass flailing rivals in the running sections, Johnson methodically picked his way through the carnage to notch a good ride.
“I am happy. I didn’t crash that much, I didn’t have any mechanicals and I kept moving up. Starting that far back, that’s the best you can hope for,” said Johnson. “It was totally chaotic, pin-balling, banging off each other, yelling at each other. Every inch you get in the start, it pays off later. If you ask people three or four rows back, we all want the race to be 75 minutes long. You ask the guy in the front row, he wants 60. That’s what makes the race so fun, there’s so much going on.”
Jamey Driscoll was 19th at 3:07 back to put two Americans in the top 20. One rider expected to fare better was Jonathan Page, considered by many a top outsider behind the strong Czech and Belgian blocks.
Page struggled with some critical early mishaps, however, that derailed any chances for the podium and he eventually crossed the line a disappointing 30th at 4:05 back.
“I was feeling really good coming into the race, but at the worlds, you need luck, and I didn’t have any today,” said Page, second in 2007. “I got through the first lap OK, but on the second lap I had some problems, and that was the bike race.”
Page started out well enough, slotting into the mid-teens midway through the first lap when a series of critical mishaps spelled doom.
First, he was caught up behind a crash involving defending world champ Niels Albert. Then his chain slipped off the big ring and got wrapped around the crank. Then his quick-release loosened, requiring him to stop again to tighten it up.
“It just kept getting worse, because you’re trying to make up for lost time. I fell down six or seven times,” he said, shaking his head. “The key is to not have any problems in those first few laps. I had problems.”
Early problems for Stybar
World Cup champ Stybar took the race by the throat, confidently powering away into the sharp end of the action much to the delight of 20,000 cheering partisans.
Vantornout gave chase and swept past Stybar in a sweeping left-hander late in the first lap and it became obvious that the Czech had problems with his rear wheel. Others swept past Stybar, who was struggling to stay upright on the final fly-over and steep descent before he could swing through the second tech support area to switch bikes.
Vantornout gave the Belgians hope by carrying the lead through the first lap, ahead of a dozen chasers, including Stybar, who came through 12th at 14 seconds back.
Page and Johnson both fought for position in the decisive opening lap to lead the Americans, with Page in 15th position and Johnson lingering near the top 30.
A leading group of seven took control at the end of lap 2: Czechs Radomir Simunek and the recovered Stybar; Swiss rider Christian Heule; Frenchman Mourey; and Belgians Kevin Pauwels, Vantornout and Nys. Defending world champ Niels Albert was a chase group in 11th at six seconds back.
Stybar takes over, Nys throws down
The men’s race settled down a bit in the middle laps. The sun popped out and warmed up the mix of snow and mud into a pasty goo, prompting riders to start swapping their bikes for spares with more suitable tires.
At the end of three laps, four riders opened up a promising gap, led by Stybar, Vantornout, Heule and Mourey. Chasing at 10 seconds behind were three more Czech riders, Martin Bina and Martin Zlamalik. Stacking up the next group was a strong Belgian presence, Wellens, Pauwels and Nys.
But an inspired Stybar wasn’t about to let the Belgians gang up on him and dominate the core of the race like they did in 2009. Fueled by home crowds, Stybar motored away from his rivals with a decisive attack in lap 4 to take control of the race.
Powering alone, Stybar opened up a 18-second gap to Vantornout, Heule and compatriot Bina. Frenchman Mourey slipped back to join Czech riders Zlamalik and Simunek at 24 seconds back.
Finding his legs in the middle part of the race was Nys, who powered through the fifth lap to jump all the way into second position thanks to nimble handling on the barriers. But Nys got greedy, came too hot into a corner and face-planted in the mud.
He rejoined the chase, but by the end of lap 6, Stybar was in the driver’s seat, powering toward the gold medal at 30 seconds ahead of the chasing Nys, Vantornout and Bina.