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Interview with former CX World Champion Niels Albert

Marcel 17. November 2017

We had the chance to talk to the cycling legend at the Superprestige Cyclocross race in Zonhoven, Belgium.

Who doesn’t know Niels Albert?  The former CX pro is a true legend of his sport. He first made a mark as a young rider, winning the World Championship title in the U23 category. Later on, he dutifully followed up with two titles in the elite category, in 2009 and 2012 respectively. He wrestled the Cyclocross crown from masters of their art like Sven Nys, Zdenek Stybar and Kevin Pauwels, the latter is still racing today. In 2014, despite only being 31 years old, Niels had to abandon his pro career due to severe heart problems. However, his love for the sport is still there, perhaps more than ever. He now works as a team manager for current World Champion Wout van Aert and the Crelan-Charles-Veranda's Willems Cycling Team. He also runs his own bike shop.

Here is my interview with Niels, including his take on the technological advancements in CX.

Left to right: bc’s Marcel, Niels Albert (team manager: Veranda’s Willems-Crelan- Charles Pro Cycling Team). In the background: current World Champion Wout van Aert.

Left to right: bc’s Marcel, Niels Albert (team manager: Veranda’s Willems-Crelan- Charles Pro Cycling Team). In the background: current World Champion Wout van Aert. © Balint Hamvas, Cycle Photos

Marcel: Niels, how are you? Can you enjoy being at the races or does it make you suffer to see the others “playing in the dirt” while you have to watch from the sideline?

Niels: It´s always a bit strange when I go to the races and see the guys racing in the sand or in the mud.

Sometimes it is difficult, because I see the crowds and the weather is good and I would love to pin a number to my jersey and smash it with the boys, but it is what it is. I had to stop three years ago, but nowadays I am happy when I am at home with my girlfriend and we have a new and totally different life.  It is hard, because I still have the urge inside of me and if I had the chance to be back, I would definitely grab it, but it´s not an option unfortunately, due to my heart problems.

The deep sandy descents are a real challenge.

The deep sandy descents are a real challenge. © Balint Hamvas, Cycle Photos

Maud Kaptheijns surprised with her victory in Zonhoven.

Maud Kaptheijns surprised with her victory in Zonhoven. © Balint Hamvas, Cycle Photos

The current CX World Champion Wout van Aert enters "the Pit".

The current CX World Champion Wout van Aert enters "the Pit". © Balint Hamvas, Cycle Photos

Marcel: You won the World Championship title for the first time in 2009 in Hoogerheide. Back in those days there were no disc brakes around. Everybody was running cantilever brakes. Over the last three years, bikes have changed a lot. Did you think that disc brakes would become the only “braking solution” that quickly in the traditional sport of CX?

Niels: Disc brakes are the most important innovation that has come to Cyclocross and Road racing.  We had no chance to use them back then, but today there is no way around them!!

Today it’s hard to imagin Cyclocross without disc brakes.

Today it’s hard to imagin Cyclocross without disc brakes. © Balint Hamvas, Cycle Photos

Marcel: Your team is almost completely on 1x drivetrains. Another huge innovation over the last few years. Have you ever had riders complaining about missing a front derailleur? And do you see a chance for 1x setups on the road as well?. The pro team Aqua Blue will be riding the 3T Strada in 2018.

Niels: For Cyclocross, the 1x systems are great. You even see teams, sponsored by other brands, tuning their drivetrains into 1x systems. But it depends a lot on the rider, whether he likes the 1x setup or not. Wout [van Aert], for example, choses the 2x eTap, because he likes to have smooth and small jumps between his gears and that is what has helped him to become world champion for the second year in a row. He was riding 46-36t in the front I think, and at a very steep hill, the small gear helped him to gain his momentum.

But in general, I believe that 1x is a very good choice for Cyclocross. Just ask the mechanics about cleaning a bike with a front derailleur.

1x on the road is a tough call. There are no references, but if the range of gears is there and the chainrings and cassettes are carefully chosen, I think it will work. We will see how the guys of Aqua Blue will ride with it in the 2018 season.

The deep sand really takes a toll on the racers.

The deep sand really takes a toll on the racers. © Balint Hamvas, Cycle Photos

After a while, berms start to form.

After a while, berms start to form. © Balint Hamvas, Cycle Photos

Marcel: CX is a sport where the right tyre choice and the right pressure is absolutely crucial. Generally speaking, the lower you can set your tyre pressure without risking a pinch flat, the better traction you will have. When you were racing, Dugast tubulars were the brand everybody trusted and that holds true to some extent today. But there is a new trend lurking on the horizon: Tubeless. Do you think that the tubeless trend will jump over from MTB to CX and even onto the road?

Niels: Tubeless has had a huge impact on the mountain bike community already. There is almost no way around it anymore.  At the moment there aren’t that many tubeless-ready CX tyres around, so I think there is still some work to be done. On the other hand, there is no such feeling than riding a Dugast tubular! These tyres are simply sublime and so smooth and beautiful to ride. You have to consider that the tyre is the only suspension we have, unlike in MTB. So we are even more precise about pressure, thread and compound. There are a lot of brands out there, that are making some great tubular tyres, like FMB, Challenge, or Vittoria, but to be honest, none of them matches the feeling of a real Dugast for me!

Look at the crowds, this is a real cycle fest!

Look at the crowds, this is a real cycle fest! © Balint Hamvas, Cycle Photos

In Belgium, Cyclocross gets better TV ratings than football.

In Belgium, Cyclocross gets better TV ratings than football. © Balint Hamvas, Cycle Photos

Marcel: Talking about tyres… We have to talk about the last World Championship in Luxemburg again. The story is told, you were the mastermind behind the tyre choice of Wout van Aert, who famously won the race on 10-year-old green Michelin Mud tyres that came out of your basement. How did you know that the tyre would perform so well on the muddy and partly frozen ground? Are there even more secret weapons from the past that we will eventually see on Wout’s bike?

Niels: Yeah, these green threads were pretty obvious. I would like to add more of these “secrets” to Wout’s bike, but the rules are pretty rigid. Everything you want to ride has to be available on the open market, but there are still some possibilities to work “with” the rules. For example, it is still legal to take a thread from an old tyre and reattach it to a new carcass. That, gives you quite some room to experiment. We are working on something special for the World Championships in Valkenburg later this season to get the triple for Wout, but that is all I can say at the moment. Hopefully it will work and we will be celebrating again next spring.

Wout and Lars van der Haar chasing down Mathieu van der Poel.

Wout and Lars van der Haar chasing down Mathieu van der Poel. © Balint Hamvas, Cycle Photos

Wout van Aert on the podium.

Wout van Aert on the podium. © Balint Hamvas, Cycle Photos

Marcel: One last question, since we are in Zonhoven, one of the most spectacular venues of the whole race calendar. What makes racing here so special and is it one of your favorite tracks? 

Niels: Oh yeah, “the Pit” is something special. It is like a real stadium and every time you hit the drop, you get goosebumps and it also makes for some good racing every year. But my favorite venue was Koksijde, where I became World Champion for the second time in 2012. The crowd was plain awesome! Over 60,000 spectators, that was just unbelievable.

Marcel: Thanks for the interview Niels and see you around. 

Wout flying through the sand.

Wout flying through the sand. © Balint Hamvas, Cycle Photos

If you have any questions about the interview, let me know in the comments!

Marcel

Marcel

Blog comments are published with first name and first letter of surname.
Blog comments are published with first name and first letter of surname.