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Mathieu van der Poel made it look easy — almost — as he rode alone to the elite men’s world cyclocross title in Tabor.
The 20-year-old Dutch rider slipped away going into the second lap and stayed gone for the rest of the race, though it took him a while to figure out how to bunny-hop the double barriers, a tactic he later said played a role in his victory.
Lars van der Haar, who blasted off the line as per usual, finished strongly too, though not as well as he would have liked. After he left World Cup champion Kevin Pauwels behind to take the runner-up spot on the course, Belgium’s Wout Van Aert overcame a series of mishaps to catch and pass the Dutch rider on the finishing straight to snatch the silver away at the line.
Van der Poel, of course, was already celebrating an emotional victory.
“I was confident after my win in Hoogerheide,” said the newly crowned world champion, the first Dutch rider to win the elite men’s title since Lars Boom did so in 2008. “But the race was very hard mentally because I never had a very big lead.
“I thought by myself the whole time the gap wasn’t big enough, and I couldn’t make it bigger. They came within five seconds of me, I think. I knew I had an advantage because I could jump the barriers. I just kept on riding.”
So did Van Aert, who suffered through dropped chains and a crash to claim that silver medal.
“In the beginning I was in the front, so there was no problem,” said Van Aert. “Mathieu was riding very hard in the first lap, but I tried to stay in his wheel. But then I dropped my chain for the first time. And that was no problem, I could come back.
“But in the second lap it dropped off a second time — still no problem, I think. I was a little behind, but I believed still in coming back. But I think in the third lap I was a little too fast in the corner, and I made a big crash where I hurt my shoulder. Then it took one lap to recover from that and I was already 50 seconds behind. After that it was a long race of coming back.”
Harmony, briefly, then a solo
Van der Poel, Van Aert and Tom Meeusen were battling early in the first lap. But it was the Dutchman who settled into the lead past the barriers with three Belgians in his train — Van Aert, Meeusen, and Pauwels, chased by van der Haar.
Van der Poel nearly came to grief hopping the barriers but recovered quickly, and he and Van Aert opened a small gap over Meeusen and Pauwels.
Then Van Aert dropped his chain riding onto the pavement and had to dismount to fix it. Meeusen and Pauwels slipped past him and crossed the line going into lap two seven seconds behind van der Poel. Van Aert got going again, but found himself already 12 seconds down.
Soon it was a three-man Belgian team pursuit hunting van der Poel. Again he nearly botched the barriers, clearing the first but having to do some quick footwork over the second, nearly clipping a photographer’s camera.
The miscue gave Van Aert and Pauwels the chance to catch him. Van der Haar, Meeusen and Klaas Vantornout were closing in, too.
No matter. Van der Poel stayed on the front and kept the pressure on.
Van Aert encountered another problem and fell out of the group. Van der Poel drove into six laps to go with Pauwels leading van der Haar and Meeusen at five seconds. Back on his bike, Van Aert chased some 17 seconds down.
Van der Poel stayed ahead of Pauwels, van der Haar and Meeusen, while Vantornout and Van Aert pursued them.
The chase strings out
On his third trip over the barriers van der Poel finally cleared them more or less cleanly. Pauwels was still leading van de Haar and Meeusen, but that chase was stringing itself out, with Meeusen losing ground. Vantornout was chasing that trio, while Van Aert was in peril of being caught by a large chase.
Five to go. Van der Poel led Pauwels and van der Haar by 11 seconds. Meeusen was at 19, Vantornout at 25, and Van Aert at 50. Gianni Vermeersch led Sven Nys and a horde of others at more than a minute down.
A determined Pauwels cut steadily into van der Poel’s advantage, with van der Haar parked on his wheel, and by the barriers the two were within striking distance of the leader. Behind, Vantornout had joined Meeusen.
But with Pauwels getting no help from the leader’s teammate, the gap went back out to 12 seconds. And with four to go van der Poel led them by 18 seconds. Meeusen and Vantornout were at 36 seconds with Van Aert still gutting it out at 47 seconds down.
Pauwels skipped the pit this time around while van der Haar took a fresh bike, but the Dutch rider lost no ground. Behind, Van Aert ground his way up to Meeusen and Vantornout.
Van der Haar makes his move
Then van der Haar attacked Pauwels on a rise, hoping to forge a one-two Dutch finish. But Pauwels stuck close, and the two closed to within 12 seconds of the leader.
Van der Haar accelerated again, trying to put Pauwels in difficulty. And this time he got a bit of daylight.
His teammate hit the line for three to go with 12 seconds over van der Haar and 16 over Pauwels. Van Aert followed at 34 seconds, just ahead of his two teammates.
The race for the podium began to tighten then. At the barriers van der Haar was just seven seconds behind van der Poel. Pauwels had the same deficit to the Dutch rider, with Van Aert charging up to him.
Two Dutchmen, two Belgians. With two laps remaining van der Poel led van der Haar by 10 seconds. Van Aert and Pauwels followed at 28 seconds. Vantornout and Meeusen were out of the hunt at a minute down.
Pauwels suddenly dropped out of the chase, glancing over one shoulder and stumbling on the stairs. Van der Haar stayed second, at 13 seconds, with Van Aert third at 23.
Van der Poel knew he could have company soon.
“At the finish we had a section that we crossed lines and I saw that [van der Haar] was coming,” he said. “He came to me the closest, I think, he was at three seconds. And then I could jump the barriers again and I did an effort to make the gap bigger.”
The battle for second
Bell lap: Van der Haar was stuck at 11 seconds back with Van Aert at 21. Pauwels was all done at 42 seconds.
And van der Poel was starting to believe.
“I just told myself that I couldn’t make any mistakes because they weren’t far behind.,” he said. “But the last half lap I knew that I was going to be the new world champion.”
There was no doubt about who would take the lesser steps on the podium, but their finishing order remained to be settled. Incredibly, Van Aert fought back up to within striking distance of van der Haar on that final lap.
One final miscue on a short, U-turn climb looked to have done for Van Aert. But the Belgian rebounded once again and caught van der Haar.
Ahead, van der Poel wept tears of joy as he celebrated his victory, but his teammate might have found his eyes damp for another reason — as they hit the pavement, the irrepressible Van Aert powered away from van der Haar and took second.
Van Aert declined to blame a new bike for his troubles, saying the dropped chains were not as much of a factor in his finish as that crash.
“I don’t know what really the problem was; I think there was too much mud between the chain and chain ring,” he said. “I think I had right tires. I was really good today. I don’t think the chain problems were the biggest problems. The biggest troubles I had was after the crash where I lost the most time.
“Before the race my tactic was to go one hour full gas and never give up. And that’s what I did. Right now it’s a disappointment it was not possible to make a nice race together with Mathieu.
“Mathieu was today really strong and I think he will be a nice world champion. I think he will show the jersey all year long.”
Jonathan Page was the top American finisher in 23rd at 1:13:45.
Editor’s note: Dan Seaton contributed to this report from Tabor.