In a stunning development, two-time Cyclocross World Champion Niels Albert of Belgium announced his retirement today due to a potentially life-threatening heart arrhythmia. The problem was discovered recently during a medical check-up in preparation for the 2014 cyclocross season, and confirmed during a second check. While there is no mention of which type of arrhythmia Albert has (there are several types), it is one which should allow him to lead a normal life but which places that life at risk of cardiac arrest during high intensity activities, cyclocross being exhibit A in that category.
Albert was devastated. At a news conference in Leuven, he announced his decision to the world.
"This sudden farewell for myself and my surroundings a very heavy sledgehammer. Last season was one with many ups and downs. I was eager to be there next season, with a reborn Niels Albert. A great year."
You can read more quotes here. Or, if you speak passable Dutch, watch the press conference here. Not surprisingly, Albert was very emotional throughout, the events a shock to his system. Only 28, Albert's future was bright in the sport. He already had two world titles to his name, as well as a junior world title, a senior Belgian national title and four amateur national championships, plus two world cups, 11 UCI race wins, a BPost Bank title and 15 wins from that series, and finally 14 wins in the Superprestige competition.
Albert's career, while rich with an array of wins, will be forever defined by the rainbow jersey. While not out of nowhere, his win in Hoogerheide in 2009 was a significant upset. All of 22, Albert dropped defending champion Lars Boom as well as defending silver medalist Zdenek Stybar and perennial Cross god Sven Nys. His second win in 2012 was easier to see coming, in the sandy mess of Koksijde. His two best seasons were the ones following his world title, as he wore the jersey well, racking up 16 and 13 race wins in 2010 and 2013, respectively (not all in the jersey, but close enough).
Albert's final season was a down year, as speedy Lars van der Haar joined him in the chase for wins on the easier courses, but Albert outdueled Nys at Hamme-Zogge for perhaps his last iconic victory. For years Albert and Nys have been the two constants in the sport, staging numerous head-to-head battles, as people like Stybar came and went, or others like Tom Meeusen, Klaas Vantornout, or van der Haar briefly kept up with the top two. Their duel at Oudenaard (a/k/a Koppenbergcross) in 2012 is the sport at its finest. Nys may be the all-time great, and often Albert could do little to stop him, but Albert's pure speed and lack of any great weakness meant he was very often ready and able to pounce.