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Just don’t call it a comeback.
After many years in which his talent seemed to have been eclipsed by younger riders, Lars van der Haar is back at the top of the cyclocross world with an impressive, and emotional, victory at the European cyclocross championships. Van der Haar won the inaugural men’s elite European title in 2015 in Huijbergen, Netherlands. Six years later his victory atop the Col du VAM crowned a successful weekend for the home nation. With titles going to his compatriots Lucinda Brand, Shirin Van Anrooij, and Ryan Kamp, the Netherlands team has reinforced its ascendency over Belgium.
The European Championships are a relatively recent addition to the calendar. The first edition was held in 2003 but a men’s elite category was only added in 2015. Since then the stature of the event has grown exponentially. After all, if Europe is the home of elite cyclocross, being champion of the continent means a great deal. Last year’s championship was also held in the Netherlands, on a fast course in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where the Belgian team dominated, propelling Eli Iserbyt to a comfortable victory. But today, Iserbyt never looked like a serious threat.
The punchy, mostly fast, course suited van der Haar’s style. He led away from the start, the sole orange jersey among a sea of sky-blue Belgians. As Quinten Hermans (Belgium) took over the lead, Michael Boros (Czech Republic) crashed on a deeply rutted section, bringing down several other riders and holding up those at the back of the pack. A select lead group formed, including Toon Aerts, Michael Vanthourenhout, Daan Soete, Iserbyt, Laurens Sweeck (all Belgium) and Van der Haar.
Through the pits, the non-pit lane was exceptionally muddy, forcing riders to dismount. Van der Haar stumbled on his dismount, sliding into the dirt and dropping back to eighth position on the second of 10 laps. By the end of the third lap, the selection had been refined. A group of five – Aerts, Van der Haar, Iserbyt, Vanthourenhout and Hermans – had pulled away from the rest.
On the fourth lap, van der Haar made the decision to take a new bike. With the pit lane running even slower than the parallel non-pit lane, it was a brave decision. Van der Haar lost time and, along with Iserbyt, fell behind. By the end of the lap, it looked like the Belgian trio at the front would be fighting it out for the win. Van der Haar thought otherwise.
With dogged tenacity he clawed his way back towards Aerts and Vanthourenhout, only to see Hermans disappearing up the track. Van der Haar picked off Aerts and Vanthourenhout then set about pursuing Hermans. In the second half of the race the Dutchman’s lap times were quicker than Hermans. He had the momentum and the home crowd cheering him on. The catch was made at the start of the penultimate lap. From the sidelines, van der Haar’s Trek Baloise Lions coaching staff were telling him to keep calm and think about his tactics. He didn’t need to think about it too long. A couple of corners later Hermans had a bobble. His rival sprinted away, opened a small gap, then set about stringing together the sections to build a race-winning advantage. Hermans was riding strongly but he couldn’t match the emotion fuelling Van der Haar’s charge into the last lap.
“I had to let the Belgians race,” an elated van der Haar said after the finish. “I felt I was really good but in the end, I didn’t know if I could get Quinten back. I knew it was a long and hard race so I had to keep trying.”
It was a suitably exciting and resonant race to finish a weekend of racing. Next week, the world’s best ‘cross riders travel east, to Tabor in the Czech Republic for the resumption of the UCI World Cup. Eli Iserbyt commands a healthy lead of 45 points over teammate Vanthourenhout, but with 11 races still to go, overall victory is far from assured.
2021 European Cyclocross Championship Elite Men Results
1. Lars van der Haar (Netherlands), 1:01:44
2. Quinten Hermans (Belgium), +00:25
3. Michael Vanthourenhout (Belgium), +00:54
4. Toon Aerts (Belgium), +1:34
5. Laurens Sweeck (Belgium), +1:52