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HOOGERHEIDE, Netherlands — In a near repeat of the junior men’s race, Belgium went one-two in the under-23 race on Sunday at the UCI elite world cyclocross championships.
Wout Van Aert proved the class of the field, taking the victory by 50 seconds ahead of compatriot Michael Vanthourenhout.
“I knew there was a piece on the course that was faster to run than to stay on the bike, and the other guys tried to take that piece on the bike. After that I had a few meters and then I made a good corner in the woods and after that I couldn’t believe my eyes, I had a big gap instantly,” said Van Aert.
“Then I knew I had to go full gas for the rest of the race because this season when I went in the first lap most of the time they didn’t come back. It was incredible to race all the time alone in front and the crowd was amazing.”
With four laps to go Van Aert was alone out front, with Vanthourenhout a solid second and a Belgian-Dutch chase further back yet. It was looking as though the race might be a repeat of Saturday’s junior men’s race, with a Belgian sweep of the podium.
But Mathieu van der Poel — who seemed hopelessly stuck in a Belgian sandwich with one lap to go — managed to squeak onto the podium, escaping in the finale to edge Laurence Sweeck by just two seconds.
Asked whether he felt there was anything positive he could take away from his day’s labors, van der Poel replied: “Maybe that I won the bronze medal. But I came here for the jersey, so the bronze medal is just a consolation prize.
“I’m not very happy with the result, but I think we saw that the two strongest were in front and I can live with my third place because the two men were stronger.
“Obviously I wasn’t in my best shape today, but when I saw Wout the first lap, I already knew what time it was. He went so fast, I already made my decision that I wasn’t going to win today. I hoped for better legs, but that wasn’t the case today.
It’s only because of the crowd that I kept on going, because I wanted to quit. But here with the crowd I couldn’t do that, so here with the crowd (behind me) I could take the bronze medal.”
Indeed, it was something of a comedown for the host nation following triumphs by Lars van der Haar in 2011 and 2012 and Mike Teunissen in 2013.
But Van Aert was certainly pleased with the way things turned out, especially after having been disqualified at the national championships following a false start.
“Three weeks ago, everybody was emotional for me because I lost a national championships, and now everybody is emotional for me because I won a jersey,” said Van Aert. “I think it’s an incredible story and I’m happy with it for sure.”
Logan Owen was the top American finisher in 14th at 3:14.
Editor’s note: Dan Seaton contributed to this report.