After the third round of the Superprestige Series in Zogge, Belgium, the rivalry in the Belgian cyclo-cross scene is mounting. Veteran Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) and Belgian champion Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) blamed the Sunweb-Revor camp for a lack of initiative in their home race.
World champion Zdenek Stybar (Quick Step Cycling Team) opened the debates halfway through the race and none of the Belgians ended up chasing the Czech down. Belgian media will surely heat up the debate as a similar feat at the world championships in January would be unacceptable for the Belgian camp.
The controversy brings back memories to the rivalry between Belgians Nys and Mario De Clercq during the world championships in the year 2000, which was exploited by Dutchman Richard Groenendaal. More than a decade later De Clercq - a triple cyclo-cross world champion - is currently team director at the Sunweb-Revor team from Kevin Pauwels and Klaas Vantornout while Nys is still among the best riders of the cyclo-cross scene.
"I had the impression that Mario De Clercq told his boys not to lead too much because that would be costly in the final laps. I know him for 20 years, so I know his tactics by now," Nys said.
When Stybar accelerated, he was with by Nys, Albert and Pauwels, but none of them reacted and in one single lap on an extremely fast course, Stybar collected a lead of more than 20 seconds. The gap proved to be unbridgeable and the world champion won his first big race of the season ahead of respectively Pauwels, Nys and Albert. The latter remains overall leader in the Superprestige series.
Nys was already fuming before the race had even started as he felt race organizer and Sunweb-Revor manager Jurgen Mettepenningen adapted the course in a way that favoured Mettepenningen's rider Pauwels. "The course has clearly been modified. The sand pit has been removed and there are fewer corners that bring the speed back to zero, which makes it hard to create gaps. There are more steep ramps that suit Kevin to perfection. I'm not stupid. This course is made for him and clearly not for me, it's a road race. You can lose a good position in the overall classification in the Superprestige series here. My home race in Baal [GP Sven Nys, January 1] favours me as well but the course hasn't changed a single bit in 10 years," Nys said.
Mettepenningen didn't understand what Nys was fuming about. "The course hasn't changed a single millimetre, there's no space to do so," Mettepenningen stated before attributing the reason Nys blamed him to something different. "Nys is no longer the best of the pack and he can't admit that," Mettepenningen stated while the actual race was going on.
The dogfight continued after the race. Albert entered the debates and didn't understand why the Sunweb-Revor boys didn't react to Stybar's acceleration. "I'm leading the series and Stybar was not too well classified so it wasn't up to me to chase him down. Hats off for Stybar to pull off the trick but the Sunweb-guys rode a wait-and-see tactic. I thought they were out on pulling off a good performance on home soil, but they didn't take any initiative. Pauwels could've ridden for the victory but he opted to wait and gamble. Kevin shouldn't hide and claim he can't do it. He wins every hard race on the calendar so that isn't correct," Albert said.
Nys was still complaining that the course favoured Pauwels, but added that the tactics from Mettepenningen and his riders were negative. Nys didn't try to hide his annoyance and especially the way Stybar was allowed to gain half a minute without any Sunweb-Revor rider taking initiative bothered him. "Right away I knew he was gone for good. For the first time this season I rode aggressively to keep my position in the top-three of the pack. I wasn't riding to make somebody else lose but to win myself. In order to do so, Pauwels needed to lose energy. In the sprint, I was beaten anyway," Nys said.
The 35 year-old raged on, and after taking on De Clercq, the next on his list was Pauwels. "Clearly one rider is a level stronger than the rest nowadays. If you're the best then you have to take your responsibility and he didn't do that today," Nys said. When asked whether Pauwels was strong enough today to react on Stybar his move Nys explained. "I gave it a try early on and so did Stybar and Albert. When Stybar attacked, I didn't move. It wasn't up to me to chase him down. It's not that Pauwels wasn't strong enough. He came back on us [Albert and Nys] on his own so he must've been very strong," Nys said.
When confronted with Nys' reactions Pauwels - often timid but nowadays picking up the skills to deal with interviews - didn't feel he was to blame. "Mario [De Clercq] tells us where to be in front and where we shouldn't be there; nothing more. Anyway, Nys could've chased Stybar too. I think he was good enough to do so. I don't think the criticism is deservedly," Pauwels said. He realized that chasing Stybar down would've cost one of the three top guns the victory. "Chasing him down would cost a lot of energy. It was a well-timed move from Stybar."
De Clercq claimed he didn't hand out the orders at which Nys was hinting. "In contrary, I would've loved to see my guys at the front from the first lap on. Klaas Vantornout was supposed to be the man to close the gaps but he simply wasn't good enough today," De Clercq said.
The last word was for world champion and winner Stybar. When asked who he felt should have chased him the Czech was unsure. "I think in those circumstances you have to take your responsibility, but it's really difficult. I was the luckiest," Stybar said. When asked whether this was his ideal scenario for the upcoming world championships Stybar smiled, "Let's hope!"