HEUSDEN-ZOLDER, Belgium—With their vocal cords warmed up from Eli Iserbyt’s stunning sprint finish victory over Adam Toupalik, the crowd roared as their favorite riders were called to the start grid for the final competition of the 2016 Cyclocross World Championships, the Elite Men’s race.
All eyes were on the defending champion Dutchman Matthieu van der Poel as he had been unstoppable as of late. The favorite of the Belgian crowd was naturally Belgian hero Sven Nys. Could the legend win one more rainbow jersey and go out on top in his final World Championships? On the start there were 67 other riders in addition to these two icons.
Four-time American National Champion Jeremy Powers was on the front row flanked by the stars of Belgian and Dutch cyclocross.
As the start, the familiar face of Belgian Laurens Sweeck immediately sprinted to the front, leading the race onto the battlefield with countryman Tim Merlier and a host of teammates and the rest of the world on his wheel. Powers meanwhile unfortunately missed his pedal, and was swarmed at the start, falling to the fourth row.
As we saw in many other races over the weekend, the back end of the Elite Men’s field got hung up on the first turn, as the Belgians and Dutch upped the pace on the front. World Cup winner Wout van Aert recalled the opening moments, saying, “It was crazy in the beginning. I felt really strongest off the bat, but I prefer to wait for the finale.”
The Favorites Avoid the First-Lap Chaos
Van Aert led for much of the first lap, occasionally glancing over his shoulder to see who was there, and what he saw must have made it feel like 2015 in Tabor all over again. Just behind was Dutchman Lars van der Haar and his countryman, the reigning World Champion, van der Poel giving chase.
One rider also up front was American Stephen Hyde, who had a great start, sitting in the top 10 ahead of the retiring legend, Sven Nys. But despite a valiant chase, the gap between Hyde and the leaders would continue to grow, while Nys slipped past and began his steady chase of the leaders, some almost twenty years his junior.
At the end of lap one, the leaders, the same three as last year’s podium, were gone with a 7:59 lap time and looking at seven more laps. Behind them the Czeck rider Radomir Simunek, Belgians Sweeck, Kevin Pauwels and Tom Meeusen and Frenchman Clement Venturini all chased.
Van Aert wasn’t content to let the World Championships play out like the final World Cups of the season did with van der Poel riding off the front. So van Aert kept the initial pace high and the race became animated, with van Aert on point followed closely by van der Poel and van der Haar ahead of chasers Pauwels Sweeck, David van der Poel, Mattheiu’s brother, Meeusen and Venturini. All were ahead of Nys. Pauwels echoed the sentiment of not letting van der Poel ride off saying that “it was certainly the [plan for the Belgians] to react as soon as possible to not let [van er Poel] get off the front.”
When asked after the race if the Belgians were able to work together, Van der Haar didn’t think so. “I don’t think they got the chance to ride together because every time they came together there was another attack. And [van der Poel] and I were focused to close gaps whenever Belgians got off the front,” he said.
At the next pass of the pits, van der Haar changed bikes and Pauwels made the catch of the leading trio. And Sweeck was digging deep to get on terms with Nys. The leading three raced on, at times joined by Pauwels, but van der Haar kept the pressure on to keep the Belgian duo off the group.
As soon as the leaders started to look around and catch their breath, Nys and Pauwels made the catch. Suddenly there were six, two Dutchmen and four Belgians, in with a shot at the World Championship title.
A Battle and Tangle Between Powerhouse Countries, Stars
The first big move from the group came from the rider that was perhaps everyone’s sentimental favorite, Nys. He went to the front before the uphill off-camber left-hand turn.
Whipping the crowd into a frenzy, and not content to lead a parade, Nys upped the pressure and strung out the front six, putting Sweeck into difficulty. Meanwhile, David van der Poel and Meeusen chased hard to bring back the front by the end of the fourth lap.
One rider who was having a great ride further back in the field was Lars Boom. The 2008 World Champion, who was recently racing on the road in Australia, had a grid position of 59th but worked his way through the field and managed to finish the day in 14th.
One lap after Nys’ attack, the group was together again, marking each other’s moves. At the same uphill off-camber left-hand turn, van der Poel had to dismount as van Aert was coming up behind him, doing the same. The resulting tangle left van der Poel’s foot stuck in van Aert’s front wheel.
Will this shoe accident be a determining factor in the race? @WoutvanAert & @mathieuvdpoel tangled. Top 2 from '15. pic.twitter.com/9t4qMBszOG
— Cyclocross Magazine (@cyclocross) January 31, 2016
As the two riders did an uncomfortable dance to free themselves, the front of the race sped away with both riders seemingly out of it. For his part, van der Haar, on the front, pushed the pace and was riding for the win. Avoiding any discussion of attacking a teammate while down, van der Haar explained his move. “I heard the crowds going crazy but didn’t see the problem with [van der Poel],” said van der Haar. “I was already planning to attack there. So that something happened in that moment with [van der Poel], that was a coincidence,” he added.
For his part, van Aert, said after the race that he “was trying to attack [van der Poel] to follow [van der Haar], but he didn’t let me go. When I was in [that] tricky corner his foot came in my front wheel. [It] was stupid for both of us but I kept my cool and stayed fast [and] in a good rhythm.”
I have to actually thank [van der Poel] because afterwards, I got that extra push to get into a high rhythm. -Wout van Aert
Van der Poel, perhaps showing his first sign of panic this season, chased hard and took risks to the point that he nearly came to grief on a left hander at the bottom of a descent, just as Toupalik did earlier in the U23 Men’s race. Managing to make a flying dismount on the drivetrain side of the bike, he avoided falling or hitting the crowd fencing and quickly recovered.
Van Aert was chasing back too, but was under control. “When [I was] behind, I was a little bit afraid that the race was going to be too short to come back. [B]ut I got some some help from Laurens Sweeck on the road to close the gap in one moment. And when I came back to Lars, I had the mental advantage. I believed in the victory and that was the most important part. I kept my head cool.”
Van der Haar meanwhile was riding off the front and led at 3 laps to go by 11 seconds, with none other than Nys leading the chase with Pauwels and David van der Poel on his wheel. Far behind was Matthieu van der Poel, 28 seconds down behind the leaders. The race for gold was disappearing ahead.
Van der Haar had the race won it seemed, he led van Aert by 12 seconds maintaining his prior lap advantage when there were just 2 laps left. Nys was a further 8 seconds back with Pauwels 3 seconds further behind and the van der Poel brothers David and Matthieu 28 and 30 seconds off van der Haar.
During the lap van Aert made one more concerted effort to get to van der Haar. Shrinking the gap to just 9 seconds, he had put another 11 into Nys, and more into the other chasers, aside from van der Poel who was back into top gear, moving through the field and trying to find the race’s head.
The Three Vans Emerge for One Final Rally
Right when van Aert made the catch, van der Haar put his technical skills to use on one of the course’s tricky descents, taking an aggressive line to gain back a few bike lengths on van Aert.
The Dutchman was aggressive and confident. “I believed in it through to the last lap since I also won European championships in the last lap,” said van der Haar, adding “[van Aert] came back from far and was just hoping I could hold him off until the end.” Meanwhile, van der Poel continued his tear back through the field and had caught and passed Nys and Pauwels.
On the final lap, van der Poel was down on the leaders by just 18 seconds, having moved into third place. Nys was leading Pauwels in the chase of van der Poel with everyone else out of the medal contention picture.
Van Aert finally did make the actual catch of van der Haar and led him around the final part of the final lap with little daylight between the riders. Van der Poel was just 16 seconds down while Pauwels and Nys rode shoulder-to-shoulder, a further 10 seconds in arrears. Van Aert recalled this moment, saying, “[I]t was just perfect to get to Lars in the last lap and then on the hardest part of the course I made the difference.”
The leaders left little room for error. Van der Haar took a risky outside line on the descent down to the pavement, briefly passing van Aert before the run-up, but it was short-lived. Van Aert surged past on the run-up, and it looked like it would come down to a sprint.
One More Run
Both riders remounted atop the sandy run-up and started to ride the following climb. Both were forced off from the effort, leaving one last footrace before a drag race to the line.
With the footrace underway, only one still had running legs—van Aert.
Van der Haar was frozen in his tracks when the time to run came, and it seemed as if he didn’t take his first step until van Aert had remounted and started riding towards the final turns before the finish. A tiny gap was suddenly insurmountable.
The moment’s hesitation was all van Aert needed to get clear for good and he rode to the finish and the win, celebrating and savoring the moment. Van der Haar, bested again, banged his bars in visible frustration.
The Forgotten Racer
With the action up front it was easy to forget there was still a medal to be decided. Van der Poel was seemingly on his way to keeping the podium personnel the same as last year, and the crowd was expecting the same. But when they were looking for the tall, orange-clad Dutchman to emerge from the final turn, the blue jersey of Kevin Pauwels surfaced. Pauwels rolled in for third, and behind, Nys started waving to the crowd, content with fourth and his record-setting, legendary career.
Van der Poel had had a spot of trouble in the closing sequence and slipped to fifth, left wondering what could have been had he not slipped in a corner and gotten his foot caught in van Aert’s wheel.
Another Young World Champ
In the post-race interview, the new 21-year-old World Champion was overjoyed. “This is a dream come true. It’s my 17th victory of the season, [my] second [World Cup] classification and jersey and now, I didn’t expect this before, but this is really great,” said van Aert.
Bronze medalist Pauwels was pragmatic. “Last round [of the World Cup] I was in fifth, then caught Nys and came in fourth, and in the last passage [here] I could pass [van der Poel] and could fight him for the medal. Third place was really the highest I could do today,” said Pauwel. “I certainly had higher expectations going into the race so I am a bit disappointed…it was not exactly a course that suited me.”
Van der Haar afterwards said that “I think I am both disappointed and happy. There was an opportunity to become World Champion. And [it] was a shame in the last lap that someone comes back and takes it away.”
When asked how he won, van Aeret said “[It’s a] little bit [due to] my character. I am a fighter and I [didn’t] come here to give up with three laps to go. I [gave] everything to the finish. I [have] really worked on the mental part of the racing.”
Before heading off, van Aert added “[Y]esterday was a really bad day for Belgian cycling,” alluding to the motor found in a Belgian U23 Woman’s bike. Today we fought back as a group and I think it’s beautiful with the World Championship in Belgium. The sport is really big here. I worked really hard for this I’m so happy I could make it.”
After riding in the top 10 Stephen Hyde finished 23rd in a great ride. National Champion Jeremy Powers claimed 34th while teammates Yannick Eckmann was 35th, Travis Livermon was 39th, Allen Krughoff was 41st, Anthony Clark was 43rd and Jeremy Durrin was 56th.
Great Britain’s Ian Field was 28th with countrymen Liam Killeen in 38th and David Fletcher in 49th. Australians Chris Jongeward and Garry Millburn were 36th and 38th and Canadians Aaron Schooler, Jeremy Martin, Michael van den Ham, Cameron Jette and Mark McConnell were 40th, 42nd, 45th, 51st and 57th, respectively.
- It wasn’t all excitement and thrills on the front. “[T]here were some points in the course where [spectators] were spitting on me–and [I] got beer poured on me,” said van der Haar, adding “[a]t that moment you [are] so focused on the race so it didn’t affect my race.”
- Niels Albert was seen riding around on a green prototype Colnago.
Be sure to check out our coverage of Saturday’s Junior Men’s race, the first-ever U23 Women’s championship and the Elite Women’s competition as well as Sunday’s other event, the U23 Men.
There is a photo gallery from the Men’s Elite race below the results. You can also see the Elite Men’s video highlights and full replay of this race here.
2016 Zolder Cyclocross World Championship - Elite Men's Results
|1||10||BEL19940915||VAN AERT Wout||BELGIUM||1:05:52|
|2||2||NED19910723||VAN DER HAAR Lars||NETHERLANDS||+00:05|
|5||1||NED19950119||VAN DER POEL Mathieu||NETHERLANDS||+00:47|
|6||5||NED19920615||VAN DER POEL David||NETHERLANDS||+01:03|
|9||27||CZE19830906||SIMUNEK Radomir||CZECH REPUBLIC||+01:37|
|16||26||CZE19920809||BOROS Michael||CZECH REPUBLIC||+02:46|
|17||4||NED19860718||VAN AMERONGEN Thijs||NETHERLANDS||+02:46|
|18||3||NED19910807||VAN KESSEL Corne||NETHERLANDS||+02:50|
|23||31||USA19870310||HYDE Stephen||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||+03:31|
|27||51||ESP19791102||RUIZ DE LARRINAGA IBANEZ Javier||SPAIN||+03:56|
|28||57||GBR19860618||FIELD Ian||GREAT BRITAIN||+04:04|
|32||52||ESP19830916||ESTEBAN AGUANDO Ismael||SPAIN||+05:10|
|34||30||USA19830629||POWERS Jeremy||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||+05:29|
|35||36||USA19931130||ECKMANN Yannick||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||+06:45|
|37||58||GBR19820412||KILLEEN Liam||GREAT BRITAIN||+07:04|
|39||32||USA19880402||LIVERMON Travis||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||+07:14|
|41||33||USA19840219||KRUGHOFF Allen||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||+07:39|
|43||34||USA19870614||CLARK Anthony||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||-1LAP|
|45||38||CAN19920802||VAN DEN HAM Michael||CANADA||-1LAP|
|49||60||GBR19890227||FLETCHER David||GREAT BRITAIN||-2LAP|
|50||64||NZL19760203||EDMOND Angus||NEW ZEALAND||-2LAP|
|56||35||USA19880811||DURRIN Jeremy||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||-2LAP|
|58||62||AUT19830630||GOLLINGER Karl Heinz||AUSTRIA||-3LAP|
|67||LUX19901218||DIAS DOS SANTOS Vincent||LUXEMBOURG||DNF6|
|59||GBR19930710||CLARKSON Jack||GREAT BRITAIN||DNF3|
2016 Cyclocross World Championships Elite Men’s Photo Gallery (Including Americans):