The real start of the cyclocross season kicked off today with a thriller of a race on the slopes of the Koppenberg, Though this course is absolute mayhem in the rain, on dry days it can lead to group racing - last year a full seven riders entered the last lap together before Tom Meuusen stole the win in a sprint finish. This year, though, Lars van der Haar set out to whittle down the front of the race early on, prying a small group off the front of the race by the end of the second lap. However, his efforts would take a toll later as Wout van Aert and Kevin Pauwels began throwing punches. Pauwels led by as much as 15 seconds with a few laps remaining but was caught by van Aert, Sven Nys, and eventually teammate Klaas Vantornout. Nys, a nine time winner on this course, hit out at the top of the climb, immediately prying open a gap to all but van Aert, who countered the move and led down the sinuous descent. As the duo hit the finishing stretch the youngster opened up his sprint from the front and was never challenged by Nys.
It was a huge win for the U-23 world champion doing a rare race in the Elite ranks, but it didn't come without controversy as one of van Aert's teammates failed to pull to the side of the course as he was getting lapped immediately before the finish and took up space in the final corner that Nys wanted to use to begin to come around van Aert. It's not clear that Nys had the legs to win the sprint and the while the move wasn't outright blocking, a rightfully enraged Nys protested as he crossed the line.
But, Sven is likely to take out his vengeance on the rest of the field tomorrow as the cx weekend of insanity continues with a stop by the sandpits of Zonhoven. This is what GS had to say about it:
If I wereIf I were a conspiracy nut I'd theorize that somewhere in Belgium scientists are trying to see how much excitement a human being can take in one weekend before spontaneously combusting, and that this Koppenberg-Zonhoven combo is a prime test case. But I'm not a conspiracy nut, so it's probably just really lucky that 1 November - Koppenberg's fixed date - is a Saturday this year.
Anyway. Ask any sane cx fan - if there is such a thing - for a funnest-race top five, and Zonhoven is in it. Or it should be at least. If you have a hard time remembering which tiny Flemish village represents which race: Zonhoven is the one with the crazy sandpit. The riders fly down it twice - on beachy sand! - and then crawl back up. Sometimes on all fours. I love this race, and so should you.
If you're wondering, she gave it a coveted five-heart rating, and honestly I think we are all surprised she didn't give it a sixth just for good measure. The course hasn't changed since last year (here's the map), so this ought to offer a good preview of what is to come. Man, I'm excited.