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Vervecken gets his stripes

You start fast and stay out front. Simple and obvious words to live by in cyclo-cross. Here in Tábor that fast start has counted for everything. Hanka Kupfernagel, Sven Vanthourenhout and Martin Bina all rode like mad for the opening 800 feet of pavement and dove into the first stretch of dirt among the first and then stayed there. In the elite men’s race, Erwin Vervecken joined the winner’s club in the same fashion, but he had some pretty tough company when he rounded that critical turn. And starting his race at the other end of the 57-man field, American Marc Gullickson fought through the

Gully’s 13th is best-ever U.S. finish

Gully did himself proud

Gully did himself proud

Photo: Charles Pelkey

You start fast and stay out front.

Simple and obvious words to live by in cyclo-cross. Here in Tábor that fast start has counted for everything. Hanka Kupfernagel, Sven Vanthourenhout and Martin Bina all rode like mad for the opening 800 feet of pavement and dove into the first stretch of dirt among the first and then stayed there. In the elite men’s race, Erwin Vervecken joined the winner’s club in the same fashion, but he had some pretty tough company when he rounded that critical turn.

And starting his race at the other end of the 57-man field, American Marc Gullickson fought through the crowd and overcame an early crash to ride to the U.S.’s best-ever finish in an elite men’s world cyclo-cross championship.

Charging toward the first of three sets of run-ups, Vervecken was in a group whose names read like the finishing list at most of this season’s World Cups: Petr Dlask (Cz); Sven Nijs (B), Tom Vannoppen (B) and most significantly, last year’s world champion and current World Cup winner, Richard Groenendaal.

Early on it was Dlask, to the thrill of the thousands of Czech fans lining the course, who took charge. His four companions seemed content to let the Czech lead the way through two rounds of the 2.8km loop at the outskirts of Tábor. The pace was enough to frustrate the efforts of nearly everyone trying to join the leaders. Only one rider — 1998 and 1999 world champion Mario de Clerq — managed to bridge.

It was a formidable group of six, especially considering that there were now four Belgians in the mix. But these Belgians aren’t necessarily a unified force. Nijs is a teammate of Groenendaal and held back last year as the Dutchman charged off to win the world title. Vervecken had his own issues with another of his countrymen: DeClerq won his second successive world title in Poprad, Slovakia, in 1999. But he did so by nearly riding Vervecken into the barriers in the closing lap. We’re not exactly talking the four musketeers, here.

Five laps into the race, Vervecken nearly lost his chance at spot on the podium, let alone a rainbow jersey. As the leaders moved through the most technical section of the course, the 28-year-old Belgian slipped in a turn, nearly taking out Groenendaal in the process. The Dutchman, however, had luck on his side and he managed to slip through the tiny gap between the fallen Belgian and his bike. Unfortunately, for the world’s number one, his luck didn’t hold.

One lap later as he and Vannoppen rounded a corner in almost the same spot, they crashed and lost contact with the leaders: Dlask, Nijs, Vervecken and De Clerq.

Dlask said he was surprised and more than a little pleased when he realized who was no longer there with him. “Of course, it is great to look around and not see Richard Groenendaal with you.”

Dlask was in for another treat of sorts when within a lap, Nijs lost touch with the leaders. It was now to three.

With Nijs in pursuit, but never quite able to establish contact, Dlask charged into the eighth and final lap. Just hanging on to a three- or four-second-lead, he never managed to break clear of the two Belgians. But hey, these Belgians are De Clerq and Vervecken… one for all and all for … one’s self.

“I figured I had a good chance to win at that point,” De Clerq later said. His words were nearly echoed by Vervecken and the charging Czech. Vervecken never allowed Dlask to get more than a few meters ahead, “five at most,” he said, and as the trio neared the final technical section, that lead was cut to nothing.

Nearing the final run-up, De Clerq made his move, charging past Vervecken and hitting the run-up ahead, too, of Dlask. One step. Two… and then he slipped. Dlask was forced to slow and Vervecken, scooted past. Dlask recovered quickly, but not quite quickly enough to overcome Vervecken’s stronger sprint.

Heading into the final stretch of pavement, Vervecken took advantage of his strength, charged and left the Czech to hit his bars in frustration one second back. De Clerq rode across the line another 13 seconds later.

Asked if the two Belgians had managed to set aside their differences and cooperate in their efforts to fight back Dlask’s challenge, Vervecken seemed to suggest that old wounds don’t heal too easily.

“I never really saw Mario that much,” Vervecken said. “I wasn’t watching behind me… As for cooperation? Well, I can see if that’s the case when I watch it on TV, tonight.”

Gullickson rolled across the line 3:09 after the leaders, shivering, covered in mud and a little surprised at his performance.

“Man, it was like a dream out there,” he said. “I had a terrible crash on the first lap and then just spent the race chasing. Fortunately, the conditions were so terrible that people were coming back pretty fast.”

Lots of them, including Groenendaal.

1. Erwin Vervecken (B), 28.595km in 1:01:55 (28.595kph); 2. Petr Dlask (Cz), at 0:01; 3. Mario de Clerq (B), at 0:14; 4. Sven Nijs (B), at 1:07; 5. Jiri Pospisil (Cz), at 1:11; 6. Henrik Djernis (Dk), at 1:29; 7. Gerben de Knegt (Nl), at 1:41; 8. Camiel van den Bergh (Nl), 1:49; 9. Tom Vannoppen (B), at 2:25; 10. Vaclav Jezek (Cz), at 2:36; 11. Maarten Nijland (Nl), at 2:40; 12. David Pagnier (F), at 2:36; 13. Marc Gullickson (USA), at 3:09; 14. Wim de Wos (Nl), at 3:14; 15. Radomir Simunek (Cz), at 3:18.

OTHER: 24. Richard Groenendaal (Nl), at 4:01; 29. Dale Knapp (USA), at 5:04.