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KOKSIJDE, Belgium (VN) — Here’s the punchline: Niels Albert is now a two-time world champion. His Belgian countryman, Rob Peeters, with a silver medal, is about to become a superstar.
But if you really want to appreciate what happened in the dunes here today, perhaps it is helpful to highlight a few key statistics:
- *61,000 spectators turned out to watch a cyclocross race, crowding the course so deep that race officials completely closed the course and all course crossings one lap after the start of the men’s race. The number of spectators here quintupled the regular population of Koksijde.
- *The host country did the unprecedented by sweeping not just the podium, but the first seven places in the race. Only Czech Radomir Simunek, more than a minute behind Belgium’s last finisher, Sven Nys, managed to come anywhere close to breaking the Belgian block.
- *Winner Niels Albert screamed through the course so fast that all but 24 men, including US national champion Jeremy Powers, former worlds podium finishers Enrico Franzoi and Petr Dlask and a host of other national champions — were pulled from the race.
Almost from the first moment of the race it was clear that the day would belong to the Belgians, and, in particular, to Niels Albert. Though perennial speedster Steve Chainel had the lead at the end of the long, straight paved starting section, Albert immediately came to the front and, by the end of the lap was riding away from defending champion Zdenek Stybar, the only rider who even briefly managed to hold his wheel.
For the rest of the race, the battle, if there was one at all, was for second place as Albert coolly and methodically pulled away from the chase. Only for a few moments, near the end of the second lap, did anyone threaten to unravel Albert’s perfect day: fellow Belgian Kevin Pauwels surged out of the chase and made his way to within perhaps five seconds of Albert’s wheel. But Albert was simply faster in the sand, and Pauwels, though he remained always in contention for the podium, faded back into the chase group.
After that point, Albert was unstoppable.
“For me Sven was the big favorite,” he told VeloNews.com later, “because he can usually ride really well in the sand. But I had a really good start and went out first in the sand, so I knew the legs were good. Then I had a gap of five, six, seven seconds and I knew it was going to be hard for everybody else. Every lap I would come to the finish line and see on the board 6:20, and every tour it was the same — 6:20, 6:23, 6:20 — and I knew when I was riding those laps at that speed, nobody could close the gap.”
Indeed, the gap only opened. By the end of the race, Albert had plenty of time to relax, bask in the moment, and still roll across the line nearly 30 seconds ahead of his nearest pursuer.
With Albert’s win looking more and more secure each lap, and Pauwels fading into a chase group that was more or less the entire Belgian team, the race for silver was suddenly wide open. And it was Rob Peeters, hardly considered a heavy hitter by prognosticators in the days before the race, who took advantage. Peeters surged just before the first big bridge crossing of the final lap. By the second bridge crossing, he knew he was headed to the podium.
“When I came to the last bridge I started to feel like I might cry,” he said later. “By the time I got to the last corner, I really couldn’t hold it in anymore. For me this silver medal is as good as gold.”
Peeters said later that, having built a career around being a support rider for bigger names like Stybar and Wellens, he never thought of himself as a threat for the podium.
“I didn’t think I’d be on the podium today,” he said. “But I guess I knew there were possibilities. Last week I was very good as well, but I had a bad start and messed up the podium. I knew I still had the good form, but I didn’t put myself on the podium because of last week. I wasn’t nervous at all, and in the previous categories I saw that the best were always coming to the front, so during the race I started to believe I could do it. Even if you’re not normally in that position, in a world championships in your own country, you can always do something more.”
Pauwels, who managed to drop a tenacious Tom Meeusen — who crashed in the final moments of the race — to take the bronze medal, said that mistakes may have cost him a chance for gold, but that he was still happy with bronze.
“I really wanted to win,” he told the press after the race, “but I made a lot more mistakes than in the World Cup (here in November). I’m satisfied with my first medal at worlds, however.”
Meeusen did recover in time to hold off a late-surging Bart Aernouts for fourth, while Klaas Vantornout was sixth. Pre-race favorite Sven Nys, looking frustrated in the last laps, was seventh, just behind Vantornout and more than a minute behind Albert.
Defending champion Stybar, though he rode with Simunek during the middle of the race, faded all the way back to a very disappointing 13th place.
Gallery: Men’s cyclocross world championships
Among the Americans there was plenty of disappointment too. Jonathan Page, apparently sick with bronchitis, rode into the top ten early in the race, but started to fade by the second lap, and abandoned the race.
Jeremy Powers climbed as high as 26th, but was pulled with two laps to go. Tim Johnson and Jamey Driscoll, officially 34th and 42nd respectively, were out of the race with three to go. Chris Jones, out at the midpoint of the race, was 43rd.
After the race, Johnson said that it was simply not a course that suited the American contingent’s strengths.
“It’s like golf,” he told VeloNews.com. “This is like St. Andrews, and not every golfer can play St. Andrews to their potential. It’s beyond belief when you’re out there. We don’t do this kind of course every year (at the worlds). I’ve been racing as an elite since 2000, and we’ve done this race once. One time out of twelve is ok. If we have a race like this once in my career, it’s fine. You can’t have the same races all the time. This is totally to an extreme, and that’s awesome. It’s a spectacle and an absolute success on every level of the sport. So if it’s not my kind of race, oh well. I can deal with that.”
Only Ryan Trebon managed to hang on for all ten laps of the race. Trebon rode as high as fifteenth early on, but faded to 18th by the end.
“I’m not particularly proud to be the only American finisher, I never go to be the top American. I want us all to be in the top fifteen,” he said. “I always want us all to do well, not just me. But those guys were hauling ass in the front.”
For the Belgians, meanwhile, there were no such concerns. And for Albert, the race was a career changer. The first Belgian to win a world championships at home since Erwin Vervecken; a rider who, just a few years ago, was seen as something of a villain by many fans, now is rapidly becoming a legend — the so-called X-Dune here will be renamed in his honor in future editions of races held on this course.
But Albert said he didn’t really see himself as any different, despite his growing list of palmares.
“In the last years I’ve gotten a little bit older, a little more relaxed, my mouth has been a little smaller,” he said. “But I still have respect for every rider. Every rider does his best to be in top condition every race; not just at the world championships, but in every race. And as world champion you have to have respect for everybody. I have as much respect for the last man in the race as the first.”