After enjoying the sweet taste of victory during the American stops of the UCI Cyclocross World Cup, World Champion Wout Van Aert has experienced nothing but the bitter bite of near misses behind Mathieu van der Poel at the series' European stops.
Three straight times Van Aert has finished second to Van der Poel, including a heart-breaking error-riddled thriller last weekend at Namur. During Monday's Boxing Day tilt at Heusden-Zolder, Van Aert returned to his early-season form and finally delivered a knockout blow to earn a European World Cup victory and remain undefeated at Zolder in 2016.
Van Aert led wire-to-wire in a triumphant return to the site of his World Championship in January and exorcised some of the Van der Poel demons that have been plaguing him in 2016.
The annual Boxing Day World Cup race in the northeast Belgian province of Limburg is held at the Circuit Zolder Formula One race track. An alternate name for the event is the Grand Prix Eric De Vlaeminck, which is an homage to the seven-time World Champion who dominated cyclocross in the 1960s and 70s. The course was also home to the 2016 World Championships, although Monday's Men's Elite race was significantly less rainy and sloppy.
The race at Zolder is one that both fans and riders had circled on their calendars as a must-attend event. Oscar Wilde wrote that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," and since American courses are creating "Little Zolder" sections on their circuits, Zolder has clearly established itself as one of the iconic cyclocross venues. The first third of the Zolder track features an array of technical corners that eventually open up into a middle portion of power sections, including one through the iconic trees. The course finishes with a technical flourish of sketchy descents and steep uphills that place a premium on both bike handling and explosions of power.
Van Aert Starts Off Hungry
The start of Monday's race at Zolder was similar to a story fans have seen in previous versions of the MvdP/WVA Trofee series. Van Aert stormed off the Circuit Zolder tarmac and took the holeshot into the first right-hand turn, throwing the first punch in the expected Van Aert versus Van der Poel match.
However, Van der Poel soon was on the ropes after getting held up in traffic at the first turn. Seeing his rival’s troubles, Van Aert advanced, hoping to land a haymaker.
At Koppenbergcross, Van Aert buried Van der Poel with a blistering early attack, while at Zeven, Van der Poel overcame early adversity and Van Aert's early effort to win handily, so the finish to Monday's story had yet to be written.
Van Aert stayed on the gas through the first lap and only Toon Aerts (Telenet Fidea Lions) was able to match his pace. By the end of the first lap, the two Belgians held a nine second lead on a chase group of Laurens Sweeck (ERA Circus), Tom Meeusen (Telenet Fidea Lions), and Gianni Vermeersch (Team Steylaerts).
Aerts would not be able to keep up with Van Aert's pace at the front, and the World Champion opened up a 12-second lead on the Telenet Fidea Lion by the end of the second lap. While Van Aert was working at the front, Laurens Sweeck, who also had his best World Cup races during the American leg of the tour, broke away from the chase group and established himself in third.
At the end of lap two, Van der Poel sat 30 seconds behind Van Aert, but gave no real indication of what was troubling him. The cause of his slow start became clear when he pulled into the pit at the start of lap three and removed his shoe for the rare shoe change. The shoe change went significantly slower than a bike change, and when he remounted his bike he sat nearly a minute behind Van Aert, who was busy turning in a 7:09 lap to match his blistering 7:08 and 7:06 opening salvos.
After the race Van Aert said that he saw Van der Poel struggling early on and knew it was go time:
"I didn't see what the problem was with Mathieu, but I definitely saw that he had a bad start. That was, of course, a signal for me to attack in the beginning so it wasn't easy for him to come back. Afterwards I was very fast alone in the lead and was just giving everything without looking back."
Van Aert Exorcises His World Cup Demon
Fans have seen Van der Poel come raging back to the front after early mechanicals, so the question in the middle portion of Monday's race was whether he would be able to eat into Van Aert's lead and come closer to delivering another demoralizing blow to his archrival.
After the shoe mechanical in lap three, the Dutch phenom sat 1:00 behind Van Aert. At the start of the fifth lap, he finally broke free from the chase group into third and was able to ride his own pace for much of the lap. However, as he crossed the finish line, the tale of the clock said he was now down 1:03 and with less than half the race left, Van Aert appeared destined for a dominating victory. A lap later Van der Poel would be caught by Aerts and then he faded into the chase group for third.
While Van der Poel was fading, Laurens Sweeck was looking like the strong rider Americans saw in Las Vegas and Iowa City. He caught Aerts on lap three, and emerged as the one rider with a shot to catch Van Aert.
However, the World Champion was riding like a man eager to kick a demon off his shoulder, and he slowly extended his lead each lap: 39 seconds, 44 seconds, 51 seconds and out to56 seconds, riding a relentless pace at the front and taking advantage of every opportunity to put down power to extend his lead.
The endless second place finishes to Van der Poel have been weighing on Van Aert, and as he crossed the finish line he gestured to the rainbow stripes on his World Champion kit as a reminder of what he can do on the bike, especially at Zolder:
"It's not easy," said Van Aert. "I had a big advantage after half the race, so then it became easier to set my own pace and hold on to take it easier in the difficult sections. Of course it's nice to win in this kind of race with a long solo effort and a very good result."
Sweeck finished his strong ride in second and was never threatened by the chase group behind him.
Van der Poel Relegated to Fighting for Best of the Rest
When Van der Poel faded back to the chase group, an exciting battle for third emerged between Van der Poel, Aerts, Meeusen, Michael Vanthourenhout (Marlux-Napoleon Games), and Kevin Pauwels (Marlux-Napoleon Games).
During the penultimate lap, Vanthourenhout and Aerts both made efforts to take control of the group, but when they hit the tarmac for the bell lap, the five riders were together.
Halfway through the last lap, Van der Poel decided it was his time to give it a go. He took the lead heading into the high-line, low-line off-camber and appeared poised to take over the third position and get a podium spot as a consolation prize. However, he soon suffered a mechanical on one of the descents and his afternoon was over.
Aerts gladly took advantage of Van der Poel's misfortune and was the first to hit the finishing stretch of tarmac with Pauwels hot on his wheel. The finishing sprint was long, and Pauwels was able to pull around to beat Aerts by millimeters at the end of the extended sprint. The third place finish is Pauwels' fourth straight finish in that position. Meeusen rounded out the top five (1'57").
American Stephen Hyde (Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld) overcame a slow start to finish 18th. He was the sole American to contest the Zolder World Cup.
Canadian Geoff Kabush, in the middle of his first European Christmas week of racing, finished 42nd, while countryman Mark McConnell finished 57th.
The Dutch Lars duo of former World Champ Lars Boom (Astana Pro Team) and Lars van der Haar (Team Giant-Alpecin) returned to the cyclocross circuit after extended absences. Boom rode in the top ten for much of the afternoon and finished 11th, while Van der Haar got off to a rough start and finished 31st.
While the race definitely wasn't a back-and-forth affair, there was one intriguing indirect back-and-forth between Adam Myerson on Twitter and English commentator Anthony McCrossan on the mic speculating about whether or not the mud on Van Aert's left side was the result of a crash or from shouldering the bike. Myerson said crash, McCrossan said shouldering, but the speculation about a singular mistake by Van Aert is a clear indication of his dominance at Zolder.
Van Aert Retains Overall Lead
With the win, Wout Van Aert extends his overall World Cup advantage to 450 to 359 over Kevin Pauwels. Sweeck's strong performance helped him inch closer to second, and currently sits just 10 points back in third.
The next World Cup race is Sunday, January 15 in the Italian town of Fiuggi, which is located in the Lazio region 90km east of Rome.
Photo gallery below the results.
2016 Heusden-Zolder World Cup Results - Elite Men
|1||Wout VAN AERT||BEL||23||1:05:22||200|
|9||Corne VAN KESSEL||NED||26||1:07:43||70|
|10||David VAN DER POEL||NED||25||1:07:47||60|
|14||Mathieu VAN DER POEL||NED||22||1:08:11||52|
|23||Thijs VAN AMERONGEN||NED||31||1:09:39||37|
|24||Ismael ESTEBAN AGUANDO||ESP||34||1:09:43||36|
|27||Javier RUIZ DE LARRINAGA IBAÑEZ||ESP||38||1:09:56||33|
|31||Lars VAN DER HAAR||NED||26||1:10:24||29|
|32||Patrick VAN LEEUWEN||NED||32||1:10:42||28|
|39||Aitor HERNANDEZ GUTIERREZ||ESP||35||1:11:27||21|
|44||Kevin SUAREZ FERNANDEZ||ESP||23||16|
|62||DANIEL ANIA GONZALEZ||ESP||30||5|