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By Bruce Fina, Special to VeloNews
In another Belgian podium sweep, Sven Nijs drew first blood in the 2003-2004 World Cup with a two-centimeter sprint victory over world and defending World Cup champion Bart Wellens. Fellow Belgian Ben Berden led in the chase group, finishing this World Cup opener in Torino, Italy, ahead of Dutchman Richard Groenendaal and Belgian Sven Vanthourenhout. “I felt very good today, but I knew from the start that I must be tactically perfect and must have great luck,” the new World Cup leader told VeloNews. “If I am not the winner, I could easily be 10th.”
Wellens told VeloNews that he was not surprised by Nijs’ win, though the race to the line had been so close.
“Nijs was always there at the front,” Wellens said, adding that he believed that Nijs was the strongest and probably deserved the win. However, he was critical of the course, which he said “was not suited to cyclo-cross.”
“It was a road race out there,” Wellens said. “If there were 15 races a year like this, I would not race ‘cross. This was a criterium.”
Wellens said the relatively easy course and high speeds allowed a large group to stay together for most of the race. The bunch included the young Italian Enrico Franzoi, American Jonathan Page, Peter Dlask of the Czech Republic and Francis Mourey of France as well as the usual group of powerful Belgians.
Cool and dry conditions also kept this large, varied group together for most of the race despite a series of strong attacks. Any minor mishap at these speeds put a rider out of contention.
The lone American racing in Torino, Jonathan Page, had a great start to the race and worked his way up to fifth place by the mid point of the hour. Page was struck down by that mishap with 4 1/2 laps to go today when he was victim of a crash by one of the Czech riders directly in front of him.
“Unfortunately my front wheel struck directly on his chain ring and full flatted instantly,” said Page. “At the time I was riding in fifth place and felt that my chances were good to stay up there until the finish.
“I am pretty disappointed because my form is great, but I had no luck here in Italy. I really wanted to prove myself here and it looked like it was going to happen.” Page chased back to within 15 seconds of the next group and finished a respectable 26th.
Strong sprinter Tom Vannoppen of Belgium also flatted on the final lap while riding fifth.
Nijs tried in vain to separate himself and get away early.
“I attacked three or four times at the beginning, but each time the large group came back, so I knew I must wait for the end,” he said.
Indeed, it was not until the final lap that Wellens and Nijs managed to get even a few seconds clear of the group. Nijs took the 150-meter sprint from the front, with Wellens conceding afterward that he “was just two centimeters too slow today. I cannot win every day.”
Nijs said the race was closer than that. “Three millimeters!” he estimated.
Today’s results show that Belgium’s ‘cross dominance is far from ended. After taking 13 of 15 possible podium places during last season’s World Cup competition, as well as four out of five victories, the Belgian grip on cyclo-cross has picked up right where it left off last season.
Still, Nijs said, he expects some serious competition this season.
“Ben Berden is the strongest of the rest. He will win a World Cup this year,” Nijs said. “But the rest of the world is coming back. They are training harder, and it shows. It is getting better for ‘cross.” Nonetheless, one wonders what will it take to truly level the playing field in international cyclo-cross.
1. Sven Nijs 57:08
2. Bart Wellens
3. Ben Berden
4. Richard Groenendaal
5. Sven Vanthourenhout
6. Francis Mourey France
7. Christian Heule, Switzerland
8. Enrico Franzoi, Italy
9. Jean Gadret, France
10. Gerben DeKengt, Netherlands
26. Jonathan Page, USACurrent World Cup Standings
(After first of six rounds)
1. Sven Nys (B), 60 pts
2. Bart Wellens (B), 50
3. Ben Berden (B), 45
4. Richard Groenendaal (Nl), 40
5. Sven Vanthourenhout (B), 35
6. Franis Mourey (F), 30
7. Christian Heule (Swi), 28
8. Enrico Franzoi (I), 26
9. John Gadret (F), 24
10. Gerben de Knegt (Nl), 22