It was billed as probably the funnest weekend outside of Christmas Week, a showcase of Cyclocross in all its diverse glory. All because November 1 happened to fall on a Saturday. You see, Article 1.1 of the Belgian constitution stipulates that the Koppenbergcross must be raced on All Saints Day, regardless of where in the week November 1 occurs. When it's a Saturday, that still leaves Sunday to fill... and nothing among the big early-season races fills that spot better than Zonhoven.
Koppenbergcross... where the Cobbles of de Ronde meet the knobby tires of fall. Zonhoven, where riders dive into a sand pit, over and over again, to the delight of the largest and loudest crowd in the sport's lineup, a veritable stadium of sandy cross. Sounds perfect, right?
Well, probably yeah. But traditionalists would be quick to point out that the weather was a no-show, and warm sunshine has no business intruding on KoppCX/Zonhoven weekend. Cyclocross is about mud first, second and maybe third. Personally I can attest to the giddy feeling of slipping around in the muck, after a Sunday afternoon spent falling back in love with slippery off-camber muck, if not over-inflated tires. It's a hoot, and let's face it, CX is all about the hoots.
But back in Belgium, where the real 'Crossers tread, subtracting wet fall weather and the accompanying heavy courses made for a great deal of drama over the weekend. Basically, these are two tough races, and if the course is extra tough, that's enough to tip the scales toward the rider with the most pure power... Sven Nys. He's won both events fairly often. Last year, when the KoppenbergCross ran on a Friday and invited a sweep of the events, Nys was off the podium Friday and winning on Sunday. Racing on consecutive days invites riders to skip or go easy on one, to focus on the other. And racing both courses in beautiful weather minimizes the dominance of even Sven Nys. Hence, we had not only a weekend packed with fun, but with possibilities as well. And so it came to pass...
- Wout Van Aert made sure we didn't spend the rest of the year talking about one future star as if the script were already written for 2017 and beyond. His win, while clouded slightly by his teammate's nonsense, was legit. He was at or near the front all day, and I didn't see any evidence that he was about to lose that sprint to Nys.
- That said... what the hell was Jan Denuwelaere doing?!? He clearly looked back and saw the front of the race approaching, well before the finish. Even us hack amateurs know when to look for a safe place to pull over. I don't particularly understand any of his explanations. He claimed he didn't see them, but that's demonstrably untrue. Word surfaced that the organizers had told him a couple times to pull over and let the leaders pass. So his tearful tale of regret sounds like a crock of shit.
- Another possible explanation is the obvious one: he was trying to get in the way to hook up his teammate for the sprint. I mean, he's human, I'm sure he wants to do exactly this if he can. But let's review the thought process. "If I just interfere with Sven Nys in the sprint, in front of the jury, the cameras and however many thousands of viewers, everything will work out briljantlijk!" I mean... maybe that's exactly what happened. If so, yikes. Anyway, judge for yourself:
Over at Zonhoven, it was the usual madness, rain or shine. Here's a full replay from Channel Vier:
The entire broadcast is two hours long but the key moments begin as early as lap three. Scroll to 57:50 and settle in. Let's do this blow-by-blow!
- Nys is in full early attack mode. Cyclocross is loops on a closed course and doesn't have much of a drafting factor, so whether you kill the competition earlier or later is more of a mind game than anything else. With Nys, the question isn't when to kill the competition, it's how often. If you had Lap 3 on your bingo card, you may have won a prize. And by prize I mean beer.
- Crowds here are fantastic. Holding the race largely in a bowl of sand allows the organizers to pack that space full of people, who can see in all directions, or so I gather. Anyway, captive audience. If anyone (in Belgium?) knows what sort of numbers the crowd represents, please feel free to educate us.
- 58:53 -- Is it me or does Klaas Vantornhout fall a lot, in spectacular fashion? He's very strong and I don't know that he's technically deficient, it just seems like when he goes down, it's especially fun. Assist to Sven... I can say from personal experience that going full gas is a good setup for making technical mistakes. It's hard to think with no oxygen.
- 59:14 -- Mathieu van der Poel is not normal. This is the point where he rides the sandy run-up where everyone else is dismounting. Such things are at a minimum a badge of honor among crossers, and usually staying on the bike is slightly faster than getting off, until it isn't anyway. I take it this was a particularly awesome moment for the Sporza guys, who start jabbering excitedly in Dutch. Either that or they just caught sight of Niels Albert's horrible haircut.
- Ozone therapy was back in the news this week, which is not good for the guy currently chasing Nys in this video, Tom Meeusen. It's not technically illegal, but it is probably a bad idea, and reinjecting your own blood is an obvious no-no, whether it's been ozoned or re-zoned or what have you. Also, today's Dutch word of the day is Kwakzalverij. Sound it out and you'll probably be able to guess the meaning.
- With five laps remaining, Kevin Pauwels is biding his time, catching a bit of a draft off Philip Walsleben nearly 20 seconds behind Nys. It's cool to see the kids on the front of the race, but the reality is that you have to do what your body says to win, and if not burning too hot on lap five is a good idea, then that's what you'd better do. Pauwels is a lot of things in the CX world, a quirky character known as much for his quiet demeanor and drive-side dismounts as his streak of untimely mechanicals. But he's also been around the block, and knows how to manage his body, for whatever result is realistically available.
- 1:09:45 -- Is Lars van der Haar ever riding calmly in Belgian races? Seems like he spends 90 percent of every race turning himself inside-out to catch whoever is just up ahead. If Cadel Evans has a CX doppelganger, it could be Little Lars.
- 1:12:20 -- Pauwels moves up, having ditched Walsleben and gone past a suddenly tiring van der Poel (maybe riding the hill wasn't such a good idea). Nys takes his foot off the gas and allows him to claw his way into what's now a four-man lead group.
- 1:19:30 -- Meeusen is leaking oil, and Sven hits him with an acceleration. Within another 30 seconds it's a three-rider lead group.
- 1:24:24 -- Van der Haar starts yo-yoing off the back now too, and Pauwels takes the race lead for the first time. Lars rejoins on the tarmac, with Patron Sven looking around like he's about to start assigning positions to his underlings. But van der Haar has burnt a lot of matches by now. Pauwels isn't exactly going full gas on the front, even if Sven installed him there for that purpose.
- 1:26:30 -- Glory Shot! Not quite... Pauwels tries to ride the run-up and comes within a meter or so of making it, which would have been a strategic success. Instead he comes to a stop briefly in an awkward dismount. It hardly matters as Sven is on him regardless. Van der Haar is disappearing, once again, on the run-up. Does he have short legs or something? He claws back, but going into the last lap he's clearly in the worst shape of the three.
- 1:31:40 -- Sven may be the strongest, but Pauwels is an unnaturally smooth rider, and on a day when the course is tricky but not heavy, the trio begin the last lap with Pauwels gliding gracefully around every tight turn. Nys is hammering on the front and Pauwels is nearly overlapping wheels, while the ever-so-slightly-less-graceful van der Haar lets a gap out. Nys thunders up the sand, but every corner favors Pauwels by a meter or so, and soon he's on the front again.
- 1:34:15 -- Lars rejoins. [Shakes head.] His formidable sprint make this an unbelievable and very dangerous performance. Nys takes note and chooses a grassy strip between two flat sandy spots to accelerate around Pauwels and put van der Haar off the back again.
- 1:35:10 -- Nys has about four seconds on Pauwels, coming into a hairpinned sand-pit down-and-up. He give back most of that margin by sticking in the hairpin, while Pauwels glides through with his momentum intact. Van der Haar is officially done, apparently taking his foot off the gas.
- 1:36:26 -- Nys appears to wobble ever so slightly in the last couple meters of soft sand coming down the hill to the finishing pavement. Pauwels does not, and the relative momentum of the challenger is enough to get him past the champion in the sprint.
So there you have it. We've complained a bit over the years about all the races that featured just Niels vs. Sven, but the list of protagonists this weekend included Niels (as creepy-camper interview host), Sven (as double-first-loser), Van Aert (as the upstart), Pauwels (as the interloper), van der Poel (as the show pony), van der Haar (as the gut-checker), Meeusen (as the pretender), and Denuwelaere (as the villain, or doofus, or something). Not a bad weekend!