“It’s unbelievable!” Wout van Aert exclaimed after a dominant win in the U23 race at the 2014 Cyclocross World Championships.
“I lost the Belgian National title due to a false start. Now, I answer with the pedals. I’m so happy, it’s unbelievable,” Van Aert said after his race, adding, “It’s so crazy I can do it here, and I’ve proved I can do it in a championship. I’m so happy…”
“I think we are the best team in the World Championships and I am extremely proud of the team today.” And he had reason to be proud of himself and the Belgian team: the Belgian Juniors swept the podium yesterday, and in the U23 race, four of the top five were Belgians.
With drier course conditions, the U23 field had a cleaner start than the Juniors yesterday, but despite getting off of the starting stretch neatly, there was still a bunched-up crash in the lead group right off the start straight. But with no injuries, it was again the Belgians and the Dutch who came to the front of the race early on.
Five of the top eight from last year returned to the race, including the Dutch defending champ Mike Teunissen. Last year’s silver medalist, Belgian Van Aert was looking for revenge (see our interview with him here). Yet first-year U23 Mathieu van der Poel, last year’s Junior World Champion in cyclocross and on the road, as well as this year’s U23 World Cup overall winner, could not be discounted.
Early on, Teunnissen found himself comfortable in second, M. Van der Poel sitting in fourth, and Belgian Toon Aerts right up in the lead. Other race favorite Belgian Van Aert was also on attack, running when others were powering through muddier, tackier sections. The early attack seemed to be effective, and he quickly developed quite a bit of daylight between himself and the rest of the field.
“I knew there was a piece on the course that was easier to run than to ride and the other guy rode it,” Van Aert explained to us later. “After that, I had a few meters, then I had a good corner around the tree and then I couldn’t believe my eyes! I had a big gap and I knew I had to go full gas for the rest of the race, because most of the time when I have gone on the first lap they have come back. It was incredible to race for the whole time alone in front and the crowd were amazing.”
While the field did tack up quite a bit, similar to the Junior race, the racers were sliding all around the course, from the race leaders including Aert to the back.
Logan Owen and Curtis White led the American charge, sitting in the main chase group in 16th and 18th at the end of the first lap. Cody Kaiser was in 29th, with Yannick Eckmnann also in the top 30. Eckmann later told Cyclocross Magazine, “I didn’t have a good start—I pulled out of my pedal and moved back, I felt I got better and better. I just messed up at the beginning again—that’s the second time this season, the whole season went great apart from the starts on the last three races.”
“I had a solid race,” Owen told us after. “I didn’t get the top 10 that I wanted, but I could see those guys there the entire race. I was closing it, closing it. I didn’t have the best start—I got caught in a crash, so I sat and waited, then on the second and third laps I really opened up and started passing people.”
A Change From Yesterday
Roughly half of the riders were changing bikes each time through the pits, but it was certainly not as important as yesterday. After the first lap, Van Aert’s lead had increased considerably, and the chasers became clearly more motivated—Van der Poel in particular—to close the now 22 second gap. The lap times, especially in comparison to yesterday’s mud-fest on the course, were blisteringly fast, with an 8:04 second lap.
Van Aerts refused to slow down, growing the gap to 30 seconds during the course of the lap. Van Aert’s teammate Michael Vanthourenhout led the chase group, clearly trying to give Van Aerts as much of an advantage as possible, though after distancing himself from The Netherlands’ Van der Poel, he went on his own attack to reel in his fellow countryman.
The end of lap two, with four laps to go, saw Van Aert still in the lead, followed by Vanthournout, and behind him, two Belgians and two Dutch racers: Aerts and Laurens Sweeck, and Stan Godrie with Van der Poel. Logan Owen held fast in 18th place as the first American.
Sweeck established a gap, making another 1-2-3 Belgian scenario, playing out almost identically to the Junior race. Race favorite Van der Poel was clearly working to his limit but not as smooth as he typically is, as the racers hit three to go.