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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews.com
Save for a botched national-anthem selection during the podium ceremony, Sunday was a perfect day for rising cyclocross star Zdenek Stybar. The first-year pro from the Czech Republic launched a bold attack early in the second of 11 laps at the World Cup opener in Kalmthout, Belgium, and held his lead all the way to the finish. It was the second major victory for the 21-year-old Fidea rider, who also won the under-23 race at the 2006 world championships.
Belgian Sven Nys (Rabobank) was a distant second, 33 seconds back of Stybar, with Frenchman Francis Mourey (Française de Jeux) winning a three-up springt for the final podium position.
Jonathan Page (Sunweb-Pro Job) was top American in 11th, while reigning U.S. national champion Ryan Trebon (Kona) finished a disappointing 42nd. Jon Baker was 51st in the 55-rider field that enthralled a boisterous, well-lubricated crowd estimated in excess of 10,000.
In the women’s race, Dutchwoman Daphny Van Den Brand outgunned American Katie Compton for the win, with France’s Christelle Ferrier-Bruneau third. Christine Vardaros (22nd) and Sarah Kerlin (29th) were the only other U.S. women in the 39-rider field.
Stybar made his move on the first grassy section of the twisting track that wound its way around the roads and woods in an industrial park on the outskirts of Kalmthout. Behind the young Czech there was a costly moment of hesitation that ended up being the difference in the race.
“My teammate Lars Boom was in the second position when Stybar attacked,” explained Nys, last year’s overall World Cup champion and winner of seven races, including the stop at Kalmthout. “I thought Boom would be fast enough to close the gap, but he wasn’t. It’s a good lesson for the other riders. Usually everybody just watches me, but now they see that it will not always work.”
Stybar also had plenty of help from teammates Bart Wellens, Klaas Vantornout and Kevin Pauwels, who took turns stifling the chasing efforts of Nys, Mourey, Sven Vanthourenhout (Sunweb-Pro Job), Swiss pro Christian Heule and Italian Enrico Franzoi (Lampre-Fondital) and Dutchman Richard Groenendaal. Those nine swapped positions throughout the 1:01:02 race, but were never able to truly threaten Stybar, whose gap crested at 1:03 with two laps to go.
“When I attacked I was just trying to break up [the lead group],” explained Stybar, who lives in Belgium with his Flemish girlfriend. “On this kind of course you don’t need to be in a group to go well. Today I had a chance and I took it. I ride as hard as I could because I saw that the gap was going up all the time. When I had one minute I knew it would be very hard to bring it back. Maybe nobody expect that I can hold it for the whole race, but I decide that it is better to be able to choose your own tempo.”
With first place off in the distance, Nys and the rest of the chasers settled in to battle for the remaining podium places. The Belgian superstar launched his own solo move midway through the final lap, and easily gapped the remnants of a disintegrating chase group.
“In such a fast race you knew that his teammates would sit on the wheel,” said Nys. “If the track had been harder with mud, maybe I would be able to get back to the front.”
The front was never in the sights of Americans Page or Trebon. Despite a place on the front row at the start, Page got tangled up in a slow-speed pile-up that dropped him out of the top 30.
“I had a great start spot but I couldn’t take advantage of it,” lamented Page, who is in his first year riding as a fully supported Euro’ pro following his breakout second-place performance at last year’s world championships. “I got gypped in the corners a few times. Whoever’s handlebars were in front was who got through. Each lap you only had one real chance to pass, on the road section. I was always on the rivet and never got a chance to fully recover.”
Meanwhile, Trebon started far back from the front and was never a factor in the race. He spent the middle portions battling reigning world champion Erwin Vervecken (Fidea) who also had an off day, finishing 22nd. Trebon fell even farther back, and afterwards said he was having troubles with his left leg.
“It just felt dead,” he said. “There was just nothing behind it. I felt like I was pedaling with one leg. It starts at the hip – I can’t turn it over. It was really bad today because you needed so much power on this course.”
Stybar had no such power problems, but he couldn’t do anything about the muffed anthem selection.
“That was a different one,” he said of the mysterious song that replaced the Czech national anthem. “I don’t know that one.”
Before the men took center stage, the women’s race was a two-rider battle between Van Den Brand and Compton. The American, who was second at last year’s world’s, was the early aggressor, attacking almost immediately and opening a gap that only Van Den Brand was able to close down.
From there the pair rode together, slowing stretching out their lead over an eight-rider chase group that included reigning world champion Maryline Salvetat of France. But the pursuers never posed any real threat, leaving the end game to the leading duo.
“I got a good start and was first into the grass,” said Compton, who arrived in Europe on Tuesday and will head home Monday to get ready for the US Gran Prix event in Kentucky. “I stayed on the gas to try to get a gap or at least string out the field. It worked, but when Daphny attacked on the last lap, I just didn’t have anything left.
“I’m still really happy with the way it went. I’ve been working on my technical skills a lot, and today showed it’s paying off some.”