The cyclocross season is nearly a month old, but between the World Cup crossing the Atlantic for its North American debut at CrossVegas and the Superprestige series’ kickoff in the Netherlands with a race in Gieten last weekend, Belgian fans have had to wait to see one of the big series come home. On Sunday they got their first taste of ’cross at its highest level with the first Belgian category 1 race of the season, the debut of the Bpost Bank Trofee series in Ronse.
Eli Iserbyt, a former Belgian and European junior champion, made quick work of the under-23 men. By mid-race, his lead already overwhelming, he was alone with the cows for much of the lap.
In spring of 2014, two-time world champion Niels Albert stunned the cyclocross community by announcing his retirement due to a life-threatening heart condition. But he quickly jumped into the role of sport director for the Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace team where he became mentor to Wout Van Aert, arguably the best and most promising young rider in the sport. Albert was an emotional, impetuous rider, but has become a steady and effective coach and an important part of Van Aert’s success. He spoke to Belgian TV before the race.
The women rolled off the line under blazing sunshine and crystal blue skies on a crisp, autumn afternoon. Women’s cyclocross in Belgium has long lagged behind the United States, but it has made steady gains in popularity, respect, and depth in the past few years, thanks in no small part to the women lined up at the front of the starting grid in Ronse.
Belgian champion Sanne Cant took a big win at the Superprestige kickoff in the Netherlands last week, but told reporters today it was an off-day for her in Ronse on Sunday. Cant could not find a good rhythm early on in the difficult up-and-down race, but she did manage to claw back enough places on the climbs to finish fourth.
Britain’s Nikki Harris watched her former Telenet-Fidea teammate Pavla Havlikova ride clear early in the race, and eventually slid to third behind her present-day teammate Jolien Verschueren. “I’m happy with third today,” said Harris. “It was the best I could have gotten today. I tried everything, but I was just completely dead at the end. It’s such a hard course. Pavla was in another league today, and she was just off on her own so it was just a fight for second.”
Race promoters call the venue in Ronse the Hotond Arena. Perched on the slopes near the summit of the Tour of Flanders’ Hotondberg climb, the steep walls of the venue mean fans get an excellent view of the race no matter where they decide to watch it. Ronse may not have the history of the Koppenberg or a feature as spectacular as the sand pit in Zonhoven, but it is one of the best places in the world to watch a cyclocross race.
A full-time school teacher off the bike, Belgian Jolien Verschueren had a breakthrough race in Ronse last year when she finished third. This year she did herself one better, dropping Sanne Cant and then overhauling teammate Nikki Harris during the closing laps to take second.
“The ups are really, really tough, really hard work, and climbing is not my favorite part of the race,” said Belgian Ellen Van Loy (pictured left). “The downs are really, really fast — you have to be so concentrated, staying on the bike, and it’s really bumpy, so you don’t have a second for recovery. But it’s a really, really nice course.”
Pavla Havlikova, racing for her own MRM-Avalon team after several years with Telenet-Fidea, took her biggest win in a long time, going solo early and never looking back.
“It’s true, it looks like [my form is a little better], but I am doing everything the same,” she said afterwards. “Things did change a lot, you know, because I have a different team. Maybe it is a little more for me because I have a clear head now, and I am racing only for fun.”
In 2013, in Ronse, riders memorialized Amy Dombroski in an emotional race that featured some of the most spectacularly bad weather Belgian cyclocross has seen in years. Two years on, Havlikova carried a memento of her friend and teammate to victory.
Belgian sports network Sporza kicked off its new commitment to women’s cyclocross in Ronse. Sporza has broadcast short summaries of women’s races for years, but will broadcast entire women’s races live from here on out. It was a big step forward in a country where women’s cycling was long relegated to distinctly second-class status. After Sunday’s race, Ellen Van Loy stopped to tell Sporza reporter Maarten Vangramberen about her fifth place finish.
Sunweb-Napoleon Games’s Michael Vanthourenhout went to the front early in the men’s race, leading the field through the first series of ups and downs, with Lars van der Haar on his wheel. By the time the pair emerged from the first series of turns at the course’s far eastern edge, they had earned a tidy gap.
By the time they hit the climb, some 20 minutes into the one hour race, the lead group had begun to settle in: Wout Van Aert in the orange and black of Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace, Kevin Pauwels in the red of Sunweb-Napoleon Games, Lars van der Haar in Giant-Alpecin’s black, blue, and red, and Sven Nys of Crelan-AA Drink, with the fluorescent Trek Boone that is quickly becoming his trademark.
At CrossVegas, first-year pro Michael Vanthourenhout — the 2015 under-23 world champion — netted a podium spot thanks to an early solo attack. In Ronse, Vanthourenhout tried the same move, but couldn’t sustain the pace on a course with so many steep climbs. He faded from the lead group to the chase group and, eventually, to 12th place.
Most fans in Ronse stay near the top of the steep hillside at the south end of the course, which offers a sweeping view of the entire venue. That means at the far end of the course there is a rare chance to get an unencumbered, up-close view of riders like Telenet-Fidea’s Niels Wubben for the sport’s youngest fans.
With the four leaders nearly a minute clear of the field, a big bunch that numbered as many as 10 riders, took up the chase. If there was any doubt a new day is dawning in cyclocross, the composition of the chase group was proof in itself. Six of the first 10 riders to cross the line behind the four leaders were 23 years old or younger.
Klaas Vantornout did not have his best day, riding an anonymous race to an 11th-place finish. The distraction of a dispute with the organizers of the Bpost Bank Trofee series could not have helped. In an unusual turn of events, the Belgian champion did not receive a race contract for the series, and will only appear in three of the series’ eight races: in Ronse on Sunday, and at the Koppenberg and in Hamme in November.
Sven Nys led on the final climb to the bell lap, but slipped to the back of the bunch near the summit, a backward move that may have cost him the a shot at the win.
“It’s a bit mental, I think,” he said. “It’s too long that I didn’t win a race, and it’s tactically — I’m a bit afraid, and I don’t want to do too much effort in the beginning of the last lap so I have an acceleration in the end. And I thought at that moment Lars van der Haar was the strongest, but that was a big mistake. I waited a little bit too long and then there was a gap, and when you close that gap at that part of the race, then it’s completely finished for the sprint. So I waited a bit too long, and Wout was really strong in the last half lap.”
Wout Van Aert, meanwhile, extended his win streak to five races with a well-timed final attack on the climb to the finish in Ronse. “Actually, I didn’t really feel great today,” he said. “The legs were not really as good as the last weeks. But I had the luck that I was still in the first group until the last lap.
“In the second part of the last lap I just gave everything on the harder parts of the course and that was enough to take a small gap on Kevin. Then it was just, focus on the pain and give everything until the finish line, don’t look back and it was a really nice feeling to cross the finish line.”
With his biggest rival, Mathieu van der Poel, sidelined as he rehabs a knee injury, Van Aert has emerged as the undisputed leader in the world of cyclocross. Van Aert has become a savvy, mature rider, but the depth of effort he can summon — as he did to drop Kevin Pauwels on the final climb in Ronse — has been no small part of his success.
“Today we saw that it wasn’t easy and it is never easy to win,” said Van Aert after the race. “Today the legs were a little bit worse than the last weeks, and I had to use my head and just focus on one big attack in the final lap and not lose energy for nothing in the beginning or the first half of the race. I think that was a good decision after I felt in the beginning that I didn’t have a really fresh feeling.”
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