BAAL, Belgium (VN) – Belgium closed out its busiest two weeks more or less the same way it has for more than a decade: with Sven Nys standing atop the podium here in his hometown race, waving to a crowd of thousands who have packed the muddy slopes of the low-slung Balenberg hill to cheer on a Belgian legend. Nys’ victory today was his eleventh in the race’s thirteen year history; he has never finished lower than the podium’s second step.
Perhaps it is fitting that the final podium of sport’s hardest period belongs to Nys, who has backed up his reputation as cyclocross’s most durable athlete with some 24 major series titles, seven national championships, and one year in the World Champion’s rainbow stripes.
“You come to Baal, it’s the first day of the year, you know that it’s a hard race and there’s a lot of pressure,” said Nys, whose win here was his third in two weeks. “When you can win by almost one minute, then you can say, ‘I’m mentally ready for the Belgian Championships.’’
Nys, kicking off the new year in a brand new light green kit, powered away from Klaas Vantornout during the second lap of today’s race and cruised from there to the finish. Afterwards, Nys said the unchallenged victory was a redemption after three consecutive third place finishes in Diegem, Zolder, and Loenhout during the core of the busy Christmas racing season — the Kerstperiode.
He added that for him, as for nearly every cyclocrosser in Europe, the season serves as a critical launch pad in the run-up to National and World Championship races.
“That’s the reason we go to Spain before the Kerstperiode, to do a lot of endurance,” he said, speaking for a number of Belgians who spend early December in better weather in southern Belgium. “Then we do one week of recovery and then you have the Kerstperiode, where you do a lot of high heart rate, with a lot of running, a lot of full power. So when you recover afterwards for a week, normally your condition will be really good for one month. Normally that’s what we all do, what we all have in mind, but not every rider has the capacity to do all the races and then not get sick.”
Nys, with a win two weeks ago in even more difficult conditions in the Namur World Cup and Friday in Leuven, emerges from the past two weeks as the clear favorite for the Belgian Championships in Hooglede-Gits next weekend. But Niels Albert, who took impressive victories in Diegem and Loenhout despite being hampered by a cold, said he also hopes to use this past two weeks as a springboard for another year in the Belgian Champion’s red, yellow, and black jersey.
“For the moment the condition is good,” said Albert, who has been regaining form after nearly a month on the sidelines after sustaining a broken wrist in a fall during training in November, after his win in Loenhout. “Now I won in Diegem, was eighth in Zolder — that wasn’t very good, but I was also a little bit sick there — and (in Loenhout) I won again. So we’ll see what I can do.”
Positive Signs for Americans
For Europeans the busy period has long served as the final test and training period before championships. But more and more North Americans have also made the trip to Europe for the Kerstperiode in recent years, and perhaps never have these two intense weeks mattered more than the do this year. With only a handful of racing opportunities available in North America before the US National Championship — held in January for the first time — Belgium offers a chance for the final tune-ups many racers need.
“Mario de Clerq used to talk about this period as his ‘stage race’,” says Geoff Proctor, who runs the nine year-old Euro Cross Camp, which brings developing American racers to Belgium during the holidays. 20 riders made the trip this year, producing some of the best results in the history of the program. Under-23 racer Zach McDonald scored a third place in Zolder and Junior Logan Owen scored four top tens, including a fifth in Zolder.
Proctor says that despite the changes in the schedule, he has hoped the camp will set up participants for success on the biggest stage. “These European guys do so many races, then they just rest, and then they are flying for the next three weeks. They do this overload period, then they supercompensate, and then they’re — Boom! — at another level,” he explains. “And I’m trying to do the same thing with the camp. I have wanted the camp to be a constant (regardless of nationals). It’s it has one mission, which is preparation for Worlds and European experience. So whenever Nationals fall, I think this year it did take on a bit of a different angle because now this is preparation for national too.”
And though Proctor’s campers almost uniformly told VeloNews they have grown as a result of their time in Belgium, no American seems to have benefitted from the past two weeks as much as Jonathan Page.
Though Page has always targeted the biggest races at the end of the season, he is coming off perhaps the most disappointing early season of his career and has, at times, even talked about retiring.
Perhaps the most accomplished elite male rider in US history, with palmares that include a second place finish at Worlds in 2007, Page has been uncharacteristically off balance this season. His results sunk as low as a 43rd place in a World Cup race in Tabor in October, but have turned around in recent weeks. Since Friday Page has pulled down two consecutive top ten finishes — seventh in Leuven and tenth today.
“It’s good. This has been a very hard week and I’ve come out of it really good,” said Page today. Now it’s time to chill out a little bit, hope for the best, have good travel, and head to Nationals on Friday. This has been my plan for a while, it could be the season’s saving grace. A few weeks ago I wouldn’t have been able to do this. I’ve been consistently good recently. Things keep improving and that’s good to see. There’s no doubt that I need to finish the season well, because I just haven’t been performing.”
Page’s other results, though not entirely spectacular, have been the best of any American in the past two weeks. He will head to Madison next week as a serious contender for the national title — alongside Ryan Trebon, who claimed an impressive victory yesterday in conditions nearly as muddy as in Baal, Jeremy Powers, and perhaps Tim Johnson, who also spent time in Europe in the past two weeks.
Johnson, however, had to settle for disappointing 39th and 37th place finishes in two World Cup races.
“It hasn’t even been mixed, the trip was pretty mediocre,” said Johnson, clearly disappointed after last Monday’s race in Zolder. “But I think I’ll get to the place where I need to be still. I know what it takes to get me going, and even if I have bad results, I am riding better than these results and I know I’ll get there. I’m really optimistic about Nationals.”
Other riders came to Belgium with their National Championships behind them. Canadian Craig Richey, who has been based in Belgium since the Canadian Championships in November was among those who matched up against eight-time Japanese national champion Keiichi Tsujiura, New Zealanders, Australians, looking for some late-season racing opportunities. Richey pulled down solid, if not spectacular results, but said je benefitted from the opportunity to test himself in competitive races.
“The past weeks have been way different from normal Belgian racing,” said Richey after today’s race, his sixth of the period and, with a 29th place finish, his best. “Over this block of racing I was emotionally invested in the World Cups. But I didn’t really care about the results at the others and could take them much more casually and try some different things I normally wouldn’t do in a big race. With a focus on Worlds the intensive race block is great preparation, lots of intensity and skills work. But it takes a lot out of you and with nationals on the 8th, it could be a little much. This year a lot of the top guys skipped at least one or two of the races.”
New Tests for Women
While the Kerstperiode has long been a staple of men’s racing, new rules requiring promoters to run women’s events in more circumstances opened up a number of opportunities for women to race as well, including today in Baal. And, in the absence of American Katie Compton, who started only one race — in Namur — in the past two weeks, World Champion Marianne Vos showed that she remains the undisputed best in the world, claiming eight straight victories in two weeks.
In fact, the only rider to win a major race here in these two weeks was Daphny Van Den Brand, who capitalized on Vos’ decision to race in Luxembourg today with a solo victory over Belgian Champion Sanne Cant in here Baal.
“It was a heavy race, but I felt my legs were very good, the best of the whole week,” said Van Den Brand, who finished second three times in a row before the win today. “My condition is really good, but I don’t know if it’s good enough for the Dutch championship, because I was sick a couple of weeks ago. When there’s four races in a week you feel it, your recovery is not so good.”
Van Den Brand, now in her final season of racing, will be hunting for an eleventh national title next week in Huijbergen on a course that suits her attacking style and hopes to improve enough to claim a final world title as well.
“I don’t know if I can beat Marianne next week, but it’s my kind of course. It’s the last chance for that jersey, but I also have the European Champion’s jersey and am UCI leader and GVA Trofee leader, and you can’t win everything. But I’m going up, up, up, up and I can grow to the World Championships. I think Marianne is at her best right now; I don’t think she can keep improving all the way to the World Championships.”
But Vos has been unbeatable in the past two weeks, and, following a training trip to South Africa in early December, said she thinks she has the form to repeat as the World Champion.
“Nothing is ever guaranteed in cyclocross, but I feel really good and I hope to stay on this form for the national championship. I don’t think this is my peak form, it’s just the beginning,” Vos told VeloNews earlier in the week.
The bigger challenge for Vos may come from Katie Compton, who has climbed as high as the second step of the World Championship podium, but never higher. The two have hardly faced each other this season. Compton was clearly not at her best in a third place finish in Koksijde in November, on the same course where the championship race will run later this month. She looked stronger in Namur, but her chances for a good result were destroyed when she dropped her chain just moments after the start of the race. Again she was forced to settle for third place.
“Of course I’ll be ready for her,” said Vos, “and for sure Daphny will be really good in Koksijde too. But last year Katie was way, way far in front. So it’s going to be a very interesting race. I don’t know how it will go, but for sure Katie’s going to be good.”
But while Compton has assured herself a chance to challenge Vos at Worlds, a handful of other Americans came to Belgium during the Kerstperiode to try an earn a spot on the national team.
Katie Antonneau, who turns twenty today, locked up her spot on the team with a brilliant 10th place finish in Namur. Meredith Miller, Amy Dombroski, and Nicole Duke also have met the qualifying standard earlier in the season.
New Englander Mo Bruno-Roy came to Belgium looking to earn a spot as well, but, despite excellent results in Diegem and Essen, fell short in both World Cup races and will have to wait to if a slot for the team should open p.
“I think overall the trip was very good. It’s hard for me to do five races in ten days,” she said after her final race in Belgium in Zolder on Monday. “I hope this pays off, because there was no real racing in the US the past couple of weeks. So I think this is good in that aspect, but I’m disappointed overall.”
For Belgian-based Christine Vardaros, meanwhile, Kerstperiode was not a vacation, it was just another opportunity to race her bike. At the end of two weeks, the American, like almost everybody who started a race in the past two weeks, said she was tired, but happy.
“After seven races in two weeks, I’m feeling better and better each time,” she said, covered essentially head-to-toe in mud after finishing 14th today. “For me, the harder the racing the better, so today was a great day for me. It just felt good to be a racer racing.”