By Bjorn Haake and Brecht Decaluwé in Hoogerheide, Netherlands
The Belgian cyclo-cross men's team surprised fans and opponents at the World Championships in Hoogerheide, The Netherlands, on Sunday when its members raced as a cohesive team. The riders' combined efforts gave Belgium first and third place, with Niels Albert and Sven Nys. Belgian infighting had marked previous, recent World Championships.
Leading up to the event, things looked to be business as usual, when Belgian Bart Wellens said he wouldn't chase after Zdenek Stybar (Czech Republic), his Fidea teammate. But Nys emphasized at the post-race press conference that things had changed since the World Cup race in Zolder.
"Bart [Wellens] and I did an interview there, and we realised that we needed to form a coalition against Boom. We kept repeating that message, and it was picked up. All went (according) to plan, and our normal teams didn't matter anymore today," said Nys.
"We raced as a country, and I'm proud that I helped to achieve that coalition. It's something you can't do on your own," Nys said. "It was so different. The atmosphere was great within our team."
Instead of preparing separately for the World Championships, the Belgians stuck together. "We did everything as a team. There was a good atmosphere," Nys said. It was a new feeling for him. "In ten years, I haven't experienced that. We usually rode as individuals. Now we've got a good mixture of guys in their thirties - and young talents."
The tactic was simple. "We just wanted a Belgian to win," Nys said. That tactic was not what the Dutch home team had expected, as they faded quickly. "The Dutch team wasn't strong as Boom only had Thijs Al to help him. The co-operation in our team was really special. Klaas Vantournout for example tapped my shoulder and told me he would attack to make sure I would be able to cover him," Nys said.
"Bart Wellens and I were talking during the race. That's unbelievable as we have been major rivals during the past ten years. The good thing is that during the upcoming weeks, we will all be fighting each other again," Nys said as he spoke of the last few weeks of cyclo-cross racing coming up.
Newly crowned World Champion Albert said the team was the real star this year. "We had a lot of fun in the hotel rooms the last few days," said Albert. "My goal in the race was to make sure a Belgian won the race. If I wasn't able to win, I would've helped the others."
There was no chasing down teammates and Nys, who dominated the 'cross season in the winter, tried to do his job, although he wasn't strong enough today to stay with Stybar. He still made it clear that he would have just sat on Stybar's wheel if he could have. "Then, if he had caught Albert, I could have still won."
The home crowd was less satisfied with the outcome, and some left early, unwilling to watch Albert cross the line in first. Nonetheless, the loyal Belgian fans made themselves heard and waved their flags.
Time will tell if the Belgians will continue to apply their new recipe for success: Win, work together and have fun at the same time.