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Lars van der Haar (Netherlands) took the silver medal after leading the race several times across the nine laps, while Laurens Sweeck ensured a second Belgian on the podium with third place.
Rain slicked the surfaces of the Namur course, causing several riders to hit the deck more than once. Van der Haar was solo in the lead on a number of occasions, only to come unstuck due to falls and mechanical issues.
Vanthourenhout had his own share of crashes, but the Belgian looked the most controlled of in the pack. He took the lead with four laps to go and looked in control all the way to the line, with Van der Haar crossing the line 40 seconds behind.
“It was very tough, it was one of the hardest races I ever raced. I felt that my legs were very good but in the second or third lap I made many mistakes and it was really difficult to catch Lars. I pushed the whole race and I think that Lars made a lot of mistakes and maybe I was a little bit stronger in the technical sections. I loved the race here.
“It means a lot to me. I’ve never raced with a jersey in the elite category so, for me, it’s the biggest victory of my life. It’s beautiful.”
How it happened
The rain arrived just in time for the elite men’s race, making an already challenging course even more difficult. Van der Haar and Eli Iserbyt (Belgium), who had battled all day long at the Koppenbergcross earlier this week, started pulling away from the others early on.
However, Van der Haar would soon be alone as Iserbyt suffered a mechanical issue on an off-camber section, forcing him to dismount briefly before stopping to fix it. The short stop was enough to see Iserbyt caught by the chasers behind, while Van der Haar pushed on untroubled.
The Dutchman had seven seconds on Vanthourenhout by the end of the first lap with Iserbyt now back in seventh at 23 seconds following his earlier troubles. On the slippery course, it wasn’t long until Van der Haar had his own problem. On the second lap, his bike dug into a rut and catapulted him forward, allowing Vanthourenhout to catch him.
Behind Van der Haar and Vanthourenhout, the Belgian duo of Quinten Hermans and Laurens Sweeck formed a chase group, and they were closing on the front of the race.
On lap 3, Van der Haar pulled into the second of the two pits to make a quick bike change and discard his glasses. Vanthourenhout pulled out a small gap but that was irradicated by a crash in the same place as Van der Haar had crashed on the previous lap. While Vanthourenhout was up quickly enough, he was down on the deck soon after as his bike slipped out on the subsequent off-camber descent.
Van der Haar initially tried to ride down but thought better of it and he dismounted to go on foot. Belgium was on the floor again as Sweeck and Hermans both crashed in the same spot as Vanthourenhout with the mud proving too slippery even for the most balanced of riders.
Van der Haar was once again alone, and he had seven seconds on Vanthourenhout as he crossed the line to start the fourth lap. Meanwhile, Iserbyt — who had been with him early on — became the first rider to abandon the race. A challenging end for the rider who many thought would take the victory.
Vanthourenhout wasn’t ready to give up yet and he was clawing back time on the determined Van der Haar. As the fifth lap began, the Belgian was just seven seconds behind the Dutchman with plenty still to ride.
His chase was helped as Van der Haar suffered a front puncture, forcing him to ride on it all the way to the pits. Fortunately for him, he was fairly close and didn’t have to ride far. However, it was enough for Vanthourenhout to come back. As soon as he was back with Van der Haar, Vanthourenhout pushed on and build a gap on the Dutchman.
Van der Haar was bringing the leader back, but he got a bit too greedy coming off a steep descent and he crashed into the side netting, losing him about 17 seconds in the process. As the riders started the seventh of nine laps, Van der Haar began bringing back Vanthourenhout for the umpteenth time, but another crash set him back and he would be 23 seconds back going into the final two laps.
As Van der Haar seemed to struggle with the developing conditions, Vanthourenhout looked as smooth as he could on the slippery surface and he continued to push out his advantage. He took a lead of 41 seconds going into the final lap and would hold that all the way to the line to take an emphatic victory.