By Brecht Decaluwé and Gregor Brown in Middelkerke
For the elite men racing 'cross in the heavy mud of Middelkerke, Belgium, on Saturday, a series of flats would influence the day's outcome. Sven Nys (Rabobank) initially broke away with three others: Belgian champion Bart Wellens (Fidea Cycling Team) and the Sunweb-Projob team-mates Sven Vanthourenhout and Jonathan Page. All four riders would suffer flats; albeit some were at more or less convenient times when it came to deciding the finish order.
Though the odds were good that Nys would have won anyway, he was helped by a few timely flats of his competitors. Page got his out of the way early in the race. Just before the race's midpoint, Page lost contact with the leaders after a flat tyre; he dropped back in a group with Thijs Al, Rob Peeters, Francis Mourey (Française des Jeux) and Gerben De Knegt (Rabobank). But his flat was early enough to keep him in the running for a good race.
One lap later Wellens punctured in the front group and fell behind. The Belgian champion lost a lot of time, too. Then, as fate would have it, the final rider in the company of Nys, Sven Vanthourenhout, also dropped away in front one lap later with a flat tyre.
Nys didn't wait for anybody to come back and he developed an unbeatable lead on his way to victory. Second place was a surprised Page, who is finding his form after a tough season. Just a few weeks ago, Page also finished second at the US National Championships in Kansas.
The Dutchman De Knegt changed bikes in the pit while Page powered away. In the following sandy stretch, Page was able to stay upright while De Knegt got stuck for a moment.
After the race, a relieved Page said, "I knew it was possible and I finally put a race together, even after a flat tyre threw me out of the leading group." It's the third consecutive podium finish for page in Middelkerke.
On the other hand, Nys, taking his 16th win of the season, explained how he managed to avoid trouble. "We had to search a lot to find the right track on this course with a lot of rocks hidden under the mud. Once I had a safe route I kept using it every lap to avoid flat tyres. Actually I had a flat tyre early on in the race which was in my favour."
For complete coverage of the Middelkerke 'cross, click here.