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Wout Van Aert (Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace) and Katerina Nash (Luna) kicked off 2015 with victories at the Grand Prix Sven Nys — the seventh round of the Bpost Bank Trofee series — held in Baal, Belgium.
Both riders soloed to victory, seemingly unchallenged.
“It’s incredible to win again today and to be secured for the overall win,” Van Aert said. “I can’t believe if anybody had said this at the beginning of the season that this would be true, that I’d win a GC in my first year as a pro, so it’s amazing.”
And while Nash did not face her biggest rivals, riding alone from start to finish, Van Aert laid waste to the sport’s best riders, riding a technically perfect race on a day that saw several of his rivals felled by mechanical issues.
Thursday’s race was the 16th edition of the Grand Prix Sven Nys, an event the “Cannibal from Baal” has won 12 times, and twice finished second. After a disappointing season, but a touch of resurgence in the past week, all eyes were on the Belgian champion and overwhelming crowd favorite.
And Nys (Crelan-AA Drink) did not disappoint, making it into the lead group of five riders that was established after two of eight laps, following a customarily explosive start by Lars van der Haar (Giant-Shimano).
In that lead group of five were, Nys, van der Haar, Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Napoleon Games), Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea), and Van Aert, the Bpost Bank Trofee series leader.
Nineteen-year-old Dutch phenom Mathieu van der Poel (BKCP-Powerplus), the winner at Diegem Superprestige on Sunday and runner-up to Van Aert at Loenhout on Tuesday, did not race. He had planned to skip the race to recover from the Kerstperiode’s hectic race schedule.
“I did nice races [in Kerstperiode],” said Van Aert. “I won three of them. In Zolder I was second, but I managed to be better in the World Cup standings, so for me it’s a good period and now I can be a little bit relaxed, going to Spain. When I come back it will be just a few days before the national championships.”
Though he’s suffered with bad form, Nys excelled in the muddy conditions, often riding at the front of the lead group, accelerating and forcing the pace.
The five riders rode together during the third and fourth laps; allowing Gianni Vermeersch (Sunweb-Napoleon Games), to come within four seconds after four laps.
On the fifth lap, Pauwels ran into some trouble in one of the course’s many mud bogs. Sensing a moment of opportunity, Van Aert accelerated, and only Meeusen could match the pace.
Nys took the up chase, 10 seconds back, and after five laps, three riders — Nys, Van der Haar, and Pauwels — sat 15 seconds behind Van Aert and Meeusen
However on the fifth lap Meeusen suffered a rear puncture, far from the mechanical pit, and suddenly Van Aert was alone, with three men in pursuit.
With two laps to go, Van Aert led van der Haar by 32 seconds, with Pauwels and Nys at 52 seconds, closely watching each other for the final podium spot — ultimately allowing Vermeersch to bridge across.
“I think it was the best I could do today against Wout,” said van der Haar. “He went on a weak moment of myself, and I couldn’t get back, and then Meeusen had a flat that was maybe the only chance to come back to Wout, if he could have kept with Wout. Then maybe they would have looked at each other, but [without that] then it’s hard.”
Heading into the final lap, Van Aert held a 48-second lead, and was able to comfortably choose his lines through the technical, tricky course. Nys, Pauwels, and Vermeersch crossed the line at 1:20 with one to go.
On the final lap Nys had a puncture, and Pauwels was gone, assured the final podium spot.
Van Aert crossed the line victorious after one hour and six minutes, 46 seconds ahead of van der Haar, with Pauwels in third, 55 seconds down. Vermeersch was fourth, at 1:24, while Nys finished fifth, 1:54 down.
“It was not bad, already better than in Loenhout,” Nys said of his fitness, which has been the subject of much scrutiny over the past six weeks. “It is rising, but I can not force here. I’ll be at a given time at the front of the race, but then you see that Wout is just playing, he had a lot extra. I could not resist the urge to accelerate a few times, but just then he went, and I had to adapt and ride at my own pace. For most of the race I was in the battle for third place, but on the last lap, just after I rode past the pits, I had a puncture, and it was over.”
It was Van Aert’s ninth win in the elite category this season, and with the win — his fifth of seven Bpost races — he clinched the overall series with one race remaining, leading Pauwels by over six minutes.
(The maximum penalty for skipping one race is five minutes, so the series win, and the 30,000 euros it brings, belongs to Van Aert.)
Meeusen was the day’s biggest loser, plummeting out of the top three in the series standings due to his untimely puncture.
The final Bpost Bank Trofee series event will be held February 7, after the world championships, in Lille.
Asked he would race worlds as an elite, the 20-year-old Van Aert said, “It’s a question that’s frequently asked of me, but for this year I will ride under-23. I think I have to keep goals for the next season. It’s not only this season but a few seasons to come. I hope I can make a nice battle with Mathieu [van der Poel] for the under-23 title, and also Laurence [Sweeck] and Michael Vanthourenhout, who are very strong. So it will be an interesting race.”
Nash in a league of her own
In the women’s race, Nash took her third victory of the season, winning more than 30 seconds ahead of Belgian national champ Sanne Cant (Enertherm-BKCP).
“[The whole ] Kerstperiode was excellent,” Nash said. “I definitely wanted to come [to Belgium] and have some good races, didn’t really expect that it’s going to go as well. And now I’ll have a nice block of training, and just really fine-tuning things for the end of the season. So I’m looking forward to heading home tomorrow and having a couple of weeks of sleeping in my own bed, hanging out with my own dogs, and good training.”
Ellen Van Loy (Telenet-Fidea) finished third, and took the series lead from Sophie De Boer (Kalas-NNOF), who was ill; Van Loy now leads Cant by 1:54 in the series.
“I’m really happy,” Van Loy said. “I’m feeling strong, and I’m feeling good. It’s my kind of races here, the hard work is what I like. And it’s what I do well.
“In the end of the race I was feeling too much pain in the legs, and I was counting and thinking in my head for the gap we had in the overall. But it was fine, I think I have almost two minutes before Sanne in the first place, so it was a win-win situation for me today.”
Nash did not face the sport’s best riders on Thursday — world champion Marianne Vos (Rabo-Liv), French champion Pauline Ferrrand-Prévot (Rabo-Liv), and American champion Katie Compton (Trek Factory Racing), all did not race.
However, Belgian champion Sanne Cant (Enertherm-BKCP) was in attendance and on the rebound from illness.
“After Namur, I came home and I had a fever of [104 degrees] so I was really sick,” Cant said. “I had to lay down a few days, I was not sure I could start in Zolder, but I wanted to try to defend my jersey. So it went well in Zolder, but afterwards I was sick again, and I couldn’t race in Diegem. Now it’s a little bit better. In Loenhout I didn’t have any power in my legs because I couldn’t train, but today it was better. I’m happy.
“I’m happy it was better today. Now I can train a little bit and get good legs again.”
Thursday’s race was the last of Nash’s Kerstperiode campaign; she’ll return to her home in Truckee, California, to prepare for the world championships, held on her native soil, in Tabor.
“I was here during the Christmas period to perform as well as possible, and that’s gone pretty well,” Nash said. “My confidence is already pretty high.”
Dan Seaton contributed to this report.