Niels Albert’s (BKCP-Powerplus) win in the Belgian cyclo-cross championships didn't come as a surprise. Albert was top favourite for the title together with defending champion Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet).
“My season is already a success. I'm curious to find out how this tricolour jersey is going to fit me. I always wanted to ride a year in this jersey and now it has finally came true,” Albert said.
After the race, Albert declared he rated the title of Belgian champion almost as high as his world championship title from 2009 in Hoogerheide, The Netherlands. There is a distinct logic to what he says, considering that six Belgian riders currently feature in the top 10 of the UCI rankings. The Belgian national championships are sometimes also referred to as the mini-world championships.
“After my career, I aim to have won everything at least once. It's not easy to become Belgian national champion. You've got to remain realistic and cherish whatever you get,” Albert said.
Right after the race, the 24-year-old was worried about the possible lack of opportunities to wear the tricolor jersey. “Tomorrow in Otegem I can wear the jersey but during the next two World Cup rounds I have to wear the jersey of leader in the World Cup. Then there's the world championships and I have already captured that title in the past, but of course I'll go for it if I'm in a position to win the world championships (again). It's a bonus because figuratively speaking, I was a nitwit at the start of the season,” Albert said.
Last year as world champion Albert had a great first half of the season but he eventually lost out on all the prizes at the end of the season. “Last year was good but the world champion's jersey is a hard load to carry. You always want to show it, but during the weeks around Christmas I wasn't living for my sport as I should have. Probably decompression was the reason for that. The guy who took me off the bike in Oostmalle made it snap inside of me. In hindsight, I regret it. Now I have a different attitude, also because of new people in my entourage,” Albert said.
Niels Albert 2.0 has switched his focus this year from the start of the season to the heydays of the cyclo-cross calendar. “Now I realize that it doesn't make sense to be good in Erpe-Mere [in September]. One needs to make choices, and the months of December and January are the ones that matter most. Before the race, I'm also more focused during the reconnaissance to find the right track whereas in the past I was just doing a lap as a form of training,” Albert said. The reason behind that switch is a crash in September that left him out of racing for about a month. “I had a very hard crash [during training] in Langdorp. During the first races I was defeated but every time I realized that my time was still to come,” Albert said.
Cyclo-cross legends Eric De Vlaemynck and Roland Liboton were critical of Albert in a recent interview for Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws. They said that Sven Nys was no longer progressing while young riders like Niels Albert were progressing much slower than Nys did when he was their age. “Every generation is different. You've got to be a super talent if you want to shine each week. All riders have to choose a time of the season to peak toward. The level nowadays is much higher. Last week, I was watching a video with Radomir Simunek from the world championships in Gieten  which his father had won ahead of Adrie van der Poel. The difference in level was so obvious. I'm not busy with being the best of my generation,” Albert said.
The remainder of the cyclo-cross season features two World Cup rounds, the world championships in Sankt-Wendel and the last races of the GvA Trophy and Superprestige Series. For a rider from the calibre of Niels Albert, most of these races are important. “First I'm going to enjoy this tricolour jersey. Then I'll see how hard it's going to be to fight up against Zdenek Stybar at the world championships. I want to win one of the two World Cup rounds, preferably Hoogerheide for obvious reason,” Albert said, referring to the world championship title he captured there in 2009.
As of Sunday evening, Albert didn't have an exact plan when he was asked where the party was going to happen. “At midnight in my bed, why celebrate,” Albert said, joking. “I hope there will be an early celebration in Begijnendijk where my fans have their spot. I enjoy life and tolerate a glass of champagne,” Albert said.
Monday's race in Otegem isn't as important for Albert and despite all his good intentions he wasn't planning to scout out the course as he did for the national championships. “I'll be at the start at 3:00pm, but I don't know when I will arrive and how I will feel. I told my pit crew to prepare some rhino tyres so hopefully it'll be the right choice for the course in Otegem,” Albert said before heading off for the night to celebrate his mini-world title.