With an irrefutable performance in the dunes of Koksijde 25-year-old Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) completed a race-long solo to capture his second win at the Cyclo-cross World Championships. No other rider combined his excellent technical skills through the sand stretches with the brutal power he had on the sections in between the two unforgiving dunes.
The race in Koksijde, a coastal town at the North Sea in Belgium, was attended by a crowd of more than 60000 'cross crazy fans which included the Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo and – he must be an Albert-fan - the King of Belgium, Albert II. After the first world championship race was held in Koksijde back in 1994 a dune was named after winner Paul Herygers. The organizers promised to name the now-called X-dune after the winner of Sunday's race.
"I thought about that the last time I rode it, thinking that he was now mine. This feeling is unbeatable. It's the biggest win of my career. Now my season succeeded," Albert said.
In mid-November the cyclo-cross season of Albert was brutally interrupted when he broke his trapezoid bone during a training ride. An overall win in one of the three major series was no longer possible since he missed rounds in all of them. Despite wins in Ruddervoorde and Zonhoven it was clear that Albert needed to come up with a big win to save his season. There were two options, the Belgian national championships and the world championships.
"After the Belgian championships I gathered with my entourage and told them I would put all my money on the world championships," Albert said. Together with his BKCP-Powerplus manager and friend Christoph Roodhooft, he headed to Spain to prepare in the best possible conditions. "We created a bond there and the people close to me live along with that. If you can pull of a win after these sacrifices then it's no wonder that there are emotions."
At the post-race press conference in Koksijde the new world champion talked about how dedicated he was in that build-up. "I headed there with the idea that the world championships would be mine, only mine. On the beach I marked out a course with plastic chairs to train on the turns and on how to choose the lines in the sand. The guys from the Topsport-Vlaanderen road team were sitting a bit further with their coffee and must've thought that I was crazy. I'm not the man of the classic training rides. I need these crazy things to become better," Albert said.
And Albert got better. After the Belgian championships Albert only returned from Spain to ride the World Cup rounds in Liévin, France and Hoogerheide, The Netherlands. In Liévin he finished on a distant 12th place and in Hoogerheide he positioned fourth. The results don't reflect how much better Albert was becoming.
"I rode in Hoogerheide and on Monday I felt better than on Sunday during the race. On Tuesday I felt even better. Wednesday was worse but from then on I constantly improved. You feel it in the legs when you draft behind the car, they feel very relaxed. You could feel that this was going to happen," Albert said.
After his training camp Albert arrived in Koksijde seemingly without stress, knowing that he had done everything he could to perform well. "I arrived here without stress. Last night I purposely didn't set my alarm and I woke up just before nine o'clock. I arrived downstairs and on the table there was only one loaf of bread left. Everybody was gone to prepare for the race. I noticed it was nine o'clock and thought I was too late," Albert said.
Of course he wasn't too late and in that relaxed state of mind he started his build-up to the race.
"Today I came from the trainer with the mission to ride a one hour time trial," Albert said. Half a lap into the race Albert started his time-trial and nobody else was able to stick on his wheel. "I claimed the holeshot which is possible for me if I'm totally focused. I went flat out and on the road I was riding on a 46x12 gear while trying to shift to a higher gear which wasn't there," Albert said.
Next week Albert turns 26 but at despite his young age he has now already collected two world titles. When asked whether he thought about the record amount of seven titles from Eric De Vlaemynck he reacted modestly.
"One has to be realistic. You can't compare this era with the old days. Seven titles is no longer possible since Stybar already collected two of them. If you can win four titles you're already among the legends," Albert said.
Compatriot Sven Nys surely is a cyclo-cross legend but despite his dominance in the sport he only captured one world title so far. Another chance was wasted for Nys on Sunday when he finished last of the Belgians in seventh place and he stated he would no longer ride the world championships.
"Personally I think that would be very sad. He's one of the greatest cyclo-cross riders around. You can't judge somebody on the amount of world championships he won. I've got two now and he's got one," Albert said.
Seemingly realizing that Nys doesn't like the fact that some riders save their energy throughout the season to focus on the world championships Albert pointed out that he didn't intend to be more fresh than the others.
"I didn't want my season to go like this. There are three top guns now. Pauwels has the World Cup, Sven won the Belgian championships and now I. There are still the series to capture a price but this saved my season," Albert said.