Igorre, Spain (VN) — Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) triumphed in a muddy, two-man duel with Francis Mourey (FdJ) on Sunday during round four of the UCI World Cup in Igorre, Spain.
The French national champion had taken an early lead on the slippery, muddy 2.5km course before Albert bridged up from a chase group on the fourth lap. The two set about building a solid advantage over a pursuit led by Belgian champion Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet), each man trying and failing to dislodge the other.
Finally, with three laps remaining, Albert opened a small gap and began adding to it as Mourey seemed at last to have run out of gas. With two laps remaining, the Belgian held 12 seconds on the fading Frenchman, with Nys alone in third at 33 seconds.
And that’s pretty much how things remained — though Albert was clearly cooked on the final go-round, he clung tenaciously to his lead and crossed the line 17 seconds ahead of Mourey, scooping handfuls of mud from his jersey to let his sponsors peek out for the cameras. Nys followed for third at 39 seconds.
A tough race … to the start line
The fourth round of the World Cup unfolded as winter conditions gripped much of Europe, spreading cold and snow across much of the continent and painting the rugged hilltops surrounding this village in the Basque region of northeast Spain white with snow.
Despite the wintry weather elsewhere, it was more typical conditions for cyclocross that greeted riders in the valley, as on-and-off showers, temperatures in the low 50s and blustery winds left an already-technical hillside course thick with slippery mud.
Compounding what would be a difficult day in the saddle, a strike by Spanish air-traffic controllers snarled travel throughout the region, leaving many competitors stranded far from the race.
Belgian Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor) made the 1,200km trip from Flanders by car. Countryman Nys and several others, including Rabobank-Giant teammates Gerben de Knegt and Bart Aernouts, plus Dieter Vanthourenhout (BKCP-Powerplus), were forced to charter a private flight from Mallorca, where they had spent the week training. Albert and Telenet-Fidea teammates Kevin Pauwels and Bart Wellens, meanwhile, all drove from southern Spain.
The news that world champion Zdenek Stybar (Telenet-Fidea) had been forced to withdraw due to the lingering knee injury that has hampered his riding for several weeks added to the intrigue, leaving Igorre to host what figured to be one of the most unusual and wide-open races of the 2010-11 European season.
Simunek shoots off the line
Once the actual race began, it was Radomir Simunek Jr. (BKCP-Powerplus) grabbing the hole shot ahead of Vantornout. He wouldn’t stay out front long — Simunek took the wrong line up a rideable hill with a left-hand bend and found himself forced to dismount. As he did, Marcel Wildhaber (Scott-Swisspower) shot past on the inside and took a slight lead with Christian Heule, Simunek and Bart Wellens (Telenet-Fidea) in pursuit.
Wildhaber’s tenure in the lead would also be brief. On the next trip up that hill, Wellens slipped past with Mourey in tow and the two quickly built a respectable gap — going through the finish for the start of lap three they had 10 seconds over a chase led by Wildhaber.
Mourey, driving the pace through the mud, opened up a few bike lengths on Wellens, who seemed stronger on the running sections. Both men were seeking out the firmer ground at the borders of the course.
Mourey finally snapped the leash and was alone the next time through the finishing chute, stamping on his pedals and churning through the goo, with Albert and Wellens chasing at 10 seconds.
Albert, Mourey trade attacks
Albert left Wellens behind and finally overhauled Mourey on lap four, taking the lead going into a long, steep staircase run, a sloppy 20 seconds’ worth of painful footwork. Wellens hovered seven seconds back with Nys moving forward out of the second chase.
Mourey seemed content to led Albert set the pace. The two came through the finish with eight seconds over Wellens. Pauwels trailed at 12 seconds with Nys and Vantornout a further five seconds down.
On the fifth lap, Pauwels, Nys and Vantornout had hooked up and began reeling in Wellens as the two leaders expanded their advantage to 20 seconds. Albert couldn’t unhitch the Frenchman, and as the two rolled into the sixth lap Mourey had a dig, opening a slight gap. But he couldn’t hold it — with four laps to go, he and Albert were soon locked together again with the Nys-driven chase at 26 seconds.
The Belgian opened up a slight advantage next trip through the pit and up the long staircase run, and as the two leaders hit three laps to go Mourey trailed Albert by a couple of seconds with Nys a distant third. And finally, the indomitable Frenchman seemed to deflate — Albert pressed his advantage, forging a 12-second lead with two laps remaining.
At the bell lap, Albert remained alone out front, Mourey having slipped another five seconds back with Nys a solid third at 34 seconds. The leader, too, looked spent, bobbling a couple of tricky bits and running patches he had ridden earlier.
But no matter — he staggered up the staircase for the final time, took a quick glance over one shoulder to gauge his advantage on the descent to the finish, and hung on to take the victory.
Into the Cup lead
With previous leader Stybar absent, the win, Albert’s second World Cup victory in as many weeks, vaulted the young Belgian into a 59 point lead in the overall series classification. Kevin Pauwels, who managed to hold on to a fifth place finish on the day, moved into second, six points ahead of both Mourey and Stybar, who are tied for third. Nys’s third place finish leaves him in fifth, just one point down on the pair.
After the race Albert said he was happy to be able to win after spending much of the Saturday in the car. “Yesterday I had breakfast at six o’clock in the morning,” the new World Cup leader told VeloNews. “Then we went to the airport and they told us everything was closed. So we made a decision that we would go by car. It was 100 km to the airport, then about 650 to Igorre, so I arrived in the car after 750 km. So I came here yesterday at two o’clock in the afternoon. I was able to train a little bit and rest a little bit in the hotel, but I think for everybody the weekend was not normal. So I hope this doesn’t ever happen again.”
Albert said that he had to overcome sluggish legs and a new course design that didn’t quite suit him on his way to the win. “At the beginning my feeling was not bad,” he told reporters at a post-race press conference, “but it was not good, because we had a very hard week training in Spain. So the feeling was ok, but not like last week in Koksijde. I liked the stairs (on the new course), but I liked the hill on the road (on the old course better). I think the hill on the road is even harder than the stairs, so maybe next year you can include both.”
Nys, meanwhile, told VeloNews he cut it much closer, arriving only three hours before the race. “It was a late decision to come here,” said the Belgian champion, “because yesterday morning… there was no discussion about airplanes, no one could fly. In the afternoon they said we could fly, but we didn’t have a plane, so we had to get a private plane for the five riders (who were in Mallorca). That was only possible this morning at nine o’clock, so… I was only here three hours before the race.”
Nys said that although he wasn’t thrilled with the last minute travel arrangements, the trip wasn’t too disruptive.
“I got everything I needed (here in Igorre), trained a few laps, and the food was ok for me before the race, so everything was normal,” he explained. “But it was a little bit stressful the last day before…. I had a hard training week, no massage before the race, so the legs were not really good. I had a good basic condition, but my turbo was not like before. But I’m happy with the race because I’m third, even after a good week of training.”
Mourey, who simply didn’t have the legs to go with Albert after his bobble near the beginning of the sixth lap, told reporters afterwards that he was disappointed that he wasn’t able to claim his first victory in a major European race this season. “In the end, the best man won,” he said. “I had a good start, but when Niels came back I made a mistake and he got a gap. I thought I could come back and win, but it was such a difficult race. Second is good for me today, and I’m happy with that result in the World Cup.”
“The World Cup overall isn’t a goal for me this year,” he added, explaining that he would miss the sixth round race in Zolder, the day after Christmas. “The World Championship in Sankt Wendel in my goal. I’d like to be on the podium there.”
The World Cup continues in Kalmthout, Belgium, in two weeks time.
- 1. Niels Albert (BEL), BKCP-Powerplus, 1:06:43
- 2. Francis Mourey (FRA), Fdj, at 0:17
- 3. Sven Nys (BEL), Landbouwkrediet, at 0:39
- 4. Bart Wellens (BEL), Telenet-Fidea, at 0:55
- 5. Kevin Pauwels (BEL), Telenet-Fidea, at 1:07
Editor’s note: Dan Seaton started writing about cyclocross when he moved from New Hampshire to Belgium in 2008. He started covering European cyclocross for VeloNews in October 2010. Dan has a Ph.D. in physics and spends most of his time working as mission scientist for a spaceborne solar telescope at the Royal Observatory of Belgium. He somehow finds time to race as an amateur ‘crosser in Belgium during the fall and winter. Dan and his wife, Mindi, live in Brussels.
— Online editor at large Patrick O’Grady contributed to this report.