With the UCI cyclo-cross world championships in Hoogerheide, The Netherlands, coming up in about a month, tension among the stars of the powerhouse cyclo-cross nation Belgium are rising. Examples of inter-squad rivalries have been common in recent races, but UCI leader Sven Nys called for his countrymen to unite against their common foe, the defending World Champion Lars Boom.
The situation was brought to a head at the World Cup round in Zolder on Friday when Boom eased up rather than chase after a breakaway which contained his fellow Dutchman Thijs Al, even though the two are on different trade teams.
The partisan crowd booed Al and Boom, but the top Belgian, Nys, called up his compatriots to form a coalition against the Dutchmen. "Lars made the decision to hold back the riders he didn't want to see win. It was impossible to work together with him today. For us Belgians, he is a mutual enemy so we'd better tackle him all together," Nys said after the race in Zolder.
Belgium has dominated cyclo-cross for the past decade; however, the country lost its first world championship in eight years to Boom last January. Squabbling within the team may have played a part in that race and could be the biggest threat to seeing a Belgian in rainbow bands next year. After the cyclo-cross race on Monday in Middelkerke, Nys tried to play down speculation on problems within the Belgian team, yet he pointed to Lars Boom as the man benefiting from the tension.
"If the course at the world championships is muddy, then tactics aren't important, but it's different if Hoogerheide has a course like the fast ones we had the last couple of days," said Nys. "I expect the Belgian team will get together at one of the next World Cups to talk tactics. All this speculation is only good for one guy and that's Lars Boom. He wants to make everybody nervous, and some guys are eating it."
Trade teams complicate tactics
While most 'cross professionals race under their trade teams, the rider selection for the World Cup races is determined by each country's national team coach. In Belgium, that man is Rudy de Bie. He will also determine the team for the World Championships, where riders will race in the national team clothing.
As if the tension between the top Belgians and the Dutch riders wasn't enough, another important Belgian spoke some potent words. Young Niels Albert, injured during most of the month December with a ruptured spleen, said that if he wasn't able to win the World Championships, he would do all he could to help his teammate Radomir Simunek win instead of one of his own compatriots.
"I'd rather see a teammate win the world championships than three compatriots on the podium," Albert said to VT4 while injured last month. "Everybody knows that teams have become much more important at the world championships. So I'll do all I can to help Radomir Simunek to the title."
De Bie wasn't happy with Albert's remark. "Niels was injured when he said this, and I think since then, his chances for the world championships have been improving.
"For me, there are two possibilities. Niels will be riding for his own chances, and I'm not doubting that, or the federation will have to select somebody who will certainly do all he can to make a Belgian win the world championships," De Bie said to Sporza. With more than a month to go before the race, De Bie will have his hands full to compel his riders toe the national line in Hoogerheide.
Spats during races compound tensions
During this season, cooperation among the Belgians has not been at its peak. A few weeks ago, there was a row between arch rivals Nys and Bart Wellens. The duo rode in front during the World Cup round in Koksijde, but the breakaway didn't succeed. Wellens claimed that Nys didn't want to work in a breakaway with him.
"I thought Nys was always racing to win but that's clearly not the case; Sven doesn't grant me a victory," Wellens said. "Sven said he couldn't do better, but I'm not accepting that. Later on, he was able to attack. For me it's clear. I learned a lot about how Nys thinks. He'll get an answer from me," Wellens said.
One month later, Nys was looking around for support when Czech champion Zdenek Stybar attacked early during the Superprestige race in Diegem, Belgium. The support didn't come, and it resulted in a safe lead for Stybar. After the race, Nys aimed his arrows at compatriot Klaas Vantornout. The Sunweb-Projob rider said he had the stomach flu ahead of the World Cup in Zolder where he pulled out early on.
Nevertheless Vantornout was able to win the cross at his hometown Torhout the next day, adding a second place to that in Diegem where he defended his second place in the Superprestige rankings. "Today I was feeling quite strong, but still Klaas manages to finish ahead of me; that's impressive," Nys said and then referred last year when Vantornout performed poorly in the GvA-trophy yet revived his form the next day. "Last year he pulled off the same trick in the GvA-trophy, so I'm not really surprised by Klaas' behaviour."
Vantornout wasn't distracted by speculation on his illness. "I know how sick I was feeling and I don't give a damn about what other people think about that. From now, I'm focusing on nothing else but the Belgian championships," Vantornout said to Cyclingnews when confronted with Nys' remark after the race in Diegem.