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In front of a record crowd, 53,000 fans, the Belgians crushed the Elite Men’s race at the Cyclocross World Championships in Koksijde on Sunday when they took the first seven spots at the finish. At the front, with his second rainbow jersey of his career was Niels Albert who led from start to finish.
“My first Worlds was in Hoogerheide. I must admit that I did enjoy that but this is Koksijde and one hundred percent Belgian, I think this one I will really enjoy to the end.” Albert said.
After returning from injury in early January, Albert has put all his eggs in the Worlds basket and the emotions came pouring out as he made his way to the finish line. “After the Belgian Championships, we had a meeting all together and we decided to work only for the World Championships. I left Spain with Christophe with the only objective to work, work, work and obviously that is with you towards this World Championships. And then when it finally succeeded, that’s a lot of emotion.”
That being said however, Albert said that he felt very relaxed coming into the race. “I had no stress. I actually didn’t put on my alarm clock last night, I woke up at about ten to nine this morning, I went down to the breakfast area at 9:00, 9:05 and had bread and there was no one else there. They were all training already.”
He continued, “I did race at Hoogerheide (World Cup) last weekend but Monday I was better than Sunday, Tuesday I was even better than Monday, Wednesday I had a little dip but then from Thursday, things went only better. My legs were getting better and better, Friday, Saturday and I was very relaxed, I could see that my condition was improving.”
The start was blistering and the pace never let up. The 25-year old hit the gas the first time through Herygers-dune causing an early. The front group included all the seven members of the Belgian National team and defending champion Zdenek Stybar and his compatriot Radomir Simunek.
Albert powered away leaving Stybar and Simunek to lead the chase briefly. But soon, it was Belgian chasing Belgian and Belgian against Belgian for the other medals. Kevin Pauwels came as close as four seconds at the end of the fourth lap but from there he started struggling in the sand sections and faded back.
“It was very close at the beginning but then with a few mistakes I just fell back. Maybe on another course I could have caught up with him but not here. ” Pauwels said.
Meanwhile Albert kept pushing the pace at the front. “I started this day in my head today I race my race, I won’t think about the other races.” he replied when asked what was going through his head while riding solo. “I must admit, it was a long time, the laps were very long and I did make mistakes, I lost at a few moments concentration but it was at the last stretch that I really knew, this is it, I had won it.”
Even when Pauwels was joined by top favorite Sven Nys, they were not able to close the gap down, in fact they kept losing ground up to half a minute halfway the race. In the final lap Albert took the lead. Rob Peeters surprisingly held good in second place at 24 seconds from winner Albert. Peeters and Albert were joined on the podium by Pauwels who overtook Tom Meeusen in the final lap. Nys concluded the Belgian top-7 on home soil. The first non-Belgian was Simunek in eighth place.
The combination of an extremely fast pace and over zealous officials enforcing the 80% rule reduced the field to 24 riders by the final lap, with riders being pulled lap after lap. Only one American, Ryan Trebon, finished on the same lap as Albert.
The complete domination of the Belgian team led to some questioning the choice of the course for the World Championships. The challenge of the course are unseen anywhere else in the world, it is sand. But not the beach sand sometimes used in US races. The course, on the Belgium coast, is on sand dunes, with deep, ankle-deep sand sections that are never flat, either uphill, downhill and off-camber for good measure. It takes years of experience to be able to understand how to race on these.
Should such a specialist course, a course that favors sand specialist be chosen for this event? Is it good for the sport?
“First of all, this is a course and a Championships on Belgian soil so it’s a bit of a home match.” Albert replied. “Secondly from when we started racing, we were taught to race in sand. So when this trail comes with sand, it’s something that we’ve been doing since when we were small. Third, there were seven Belgians in the first seven places, that’s not our fault that’s the competition’s fault.”