On Sunday the 2016-2017 Men’s UCI World World Cup series made its fifth stop at Namur in the Belgian province of Wallonia. The race at Namur is also known as Citadelcross, so named because it takes place at the Citadel that towers over the Meuse River and the city of Namur below. Although the race is one of the newer on the Belgian Circuit, the Citadel dates back to 937 and it was completed in its current form in the 17th century. Interestingly, the race is one of the few races that Wout Van Aert has yet to win during his meteoric rise through the cyclocross ranks.
Although relatively new, the course at Namur has already gained legendary status among the riders. British women’s rider Helen Wyman chipped in her commentary during the NBC Sports broadcast of the women’s race (we wish her a speedy recovery) and said that Namur is the most difficult World Cup course. The track was faster than in recent years, with a lack of rain keeping the track tacky. The famed rutted off-camber section was still as difficult as ever, and would prove to be a key feature during the men’s race.
Viewers tuning in toward the latter portion of the race would have seen the latest battle for the MvdP/WVA Trofee. However, how the riders got to the point where they entered the bell lap together was quite the adventure. Wout Van Aert struggled mightily during the first two trips through the off-camber section. He slipped out on the first lap and then crashed head over handlebars during the second. Despite the errors he was able to close the gap back to Van der Poel both times, and then did it again after a mid-race mishap. The riders traded attacks on the last lap, and just as he did at Saturday’s Scheldecross (see that moment here), Van der Poel found one critical, last-lap element to make the race, riding the rutted off-camber cleanly and powered up the second steep of the course’s steep run/ride up-hills to break away for his third straight World Cup victory.
Van Aert Struggles Mightily Early On
Wout Van Aert looked determined to put his mark on the race from the opening whistle. He took the holeshot and first-lap hill KOM and drove the pace early on. The rutted off-camber section, the iconic feature of the Namur course, proved to be critical today. There really is no “pro line” through the section; it is more “whatever line gets you through is the pro line.” Van Aert was unable to find either on the first lap as he went to the ground and fell back several places into a chase of six behind Mathieu van der Poel and fast starter Tom Meeusen (Telenet Fidea Lions).
While Van Aert was struggling, American Stephen Hyde (Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld.com) made a strong showing at the start. He rode his front-row start to fourth position after the hill shot and sat in the top five to seven for most of the first lap.
Several times this season, Van Aert has launched an early race attack after a Van der Poel mishap. On Sunday, the tables were turned, with Van der Poel launching an attack after Van Aert’s crash. Van Aert would nearly reel the attack back in at the off-camber before he crashed again. Halfway through the section Van Aert slipped to the lowest level of the off-camber along the snow fence before abruptly going head over handlebars (or in cyclocross parlance, ass over tea kettle) and falling to the ground.
Van der Poel was again able to open up a gap on Van Aert, but Meeusen showed that his strong start was no fluke and was able to go off the front with van der Poel. A 6:14 lap by Van Aert in lap three brought him back to Van der Poel yet again, and he joined the Dutch rider and Meeusen at the front.
It is uncertain if a black cat crossed the World Champion’s path this week or he inadvertently walked under a ladder, but halfway through the race disaster struck again when he got his handlebars caught up on the snow fence at the bottom of a downhill, 180-degree turn. Van der Poel again attacked, with a 6:11 lap of his own on lap six and opened up a 17 second lead on Van Aert and Meeusen.
Another Battle for the Ages Emerges
After Van Aert’s tangle with the snow fence, it appeared that Van der Poel was poised to cruise to his second straight victory at Namur. However, the Dutch rider would have his own troubles on the seventh lap, although none quite as demonstrative as Van Aert’s. Van der Poel had a slight bobble on a downhill turn that cost him several seconds off his lead. Van Aert continued to charge back, eventually turning in a 6:10 lap, and caught his archrival at the top of the climb before the start/finish stretch.
After the race, Van der Poel said that he knew riding alone at the front would not be in the cards for him at Namur, “At the beginning Wout made a few mistakes that gave me a little advantage. But I felt that my legs weren’t good enough to ride the whole hour by myself. He came back riding strong, and I was focused on the last lap again.”
While Van Aert was making his move to the front, Kevin Pauwels was slowly working his way away from Meeusen into a solo third position. He would continue to ride consistently and confidently to the front as van der Poel and Van Aert jockeyed for position.
As the race entered its final third, van der Poel and Van Aert showed that there would be no waiting until the last lap to try to dispatch their arch rival. At the second key feature on the course—two steep hills that riders could either ride or run up—Van Aert made his move.
He entered the first of these hills on the outside line while Van der Poel tried to cut to the inside. He got caught up at the barrier, and Van Aert was able to open up a small gap. However, at the second steep hill, Van der Poel tried again, taking the inside line again. This time he was able to get by the Belgian rider and head into the start/finish straight in first position.
A Thrilling Last Lap
As the riders entered the last lap, three questions loomed over the race. First, how many matches did Van Aert have left after closing the gap to Van der Poel three times? Second, would Van Aert’s issues on the off-camber arise again on the last lap? And third, would Kevin Pauwels be able to work his way back to the front and pull off the epic upset after countless “best of the rest” finishes this season?
After the race, Van der Poel said that he was thinking about those two questions as well, “Of course when someone is getting back at you, you think he’s stronger. I kept in mind that [Van Aert] made a few little mistakes and maybe he was also on his limits. I was focusing on the last lap because anything is possible.”
After the riders descended the technical downhill, the answer to the third question appeared to be “it could just happen.” Pauwels closed the gap to four seconds at the bottom of the hill and appeared close to catching the two riders at the front as they entered the technical features of the course.
Pauwel’s chance for the epic upset would be short lived, however. Van Aert showed that he still had a match or two left and launched an attack through the first steep uphill to grab the lead heading into the rutted off-camber that had been his nemesis earlier in the race. There would be no epic crashes, but Van der Poel took a lower line than Van Aert and was to ride it cleaner to a small two-second lead.
Shortly after the off-camber, riders made a hard right turn into a run-up. Van Aert was able to strike another match and use his quick feet to close the two-second gap and jump right back on Van der Poel’s wheel at the top of the run-up. However, as any rider who has ever made an attack on a run-up knows, the aftermath of that attack can be quite painful.
After saving something on the run-up, Van der Poel reapplied the pressure to Van Aert by exploding into the second steep hill. He rode it cleanly and accelerated to the top while Van Aert struggled and had to put a foot down to push himself over that top.
Van der Poel indicated that he saw the last steep uphill as a place to make his final move, “On the off-camber I made the final move, I think, and I passed him a little bit quicker. After the running section there was an uphill section where the difference could be made. It’s there I won the race.”
That burst of power would be Van der Poel’s winning move. He continued to power up the last climb, and came across the line to a hail of confetti to celebrate his second straight victory at Namur and third-straight World Cup victory.
Van Aert held onto second, 16 seconds back, and Pauwels finished a strong ride in third, 27 seconds in arrears. The early animator Meeusen finished fourth (1’08”) and Laurens Sweeck fifth (1’22”).
After his strong start Stephen Hyde settled into about 17th to 20th place and finished the afternoon in 19th. In an interview with Cyclocross Magazine, the gingerbearded Hyde said that he has established a Gingercross rivalry with Klaas Vantornout. Vantornout would get the best of the Gingercross race by finishing the afternoon in 10th.
Canadian Geoff Kabush, set to race his first Christmas Week in Europe, finished 36th, with Mark McConnell in 51st. American Eric Thompson raced and finished in 54th (HED p/b Molten Speed Wax).
Van Aert Retains World Cup Lead
With the victory at Namur, van der Poel remains perfect in his three World Cup starts. Van Aert has finished second in those three races and retains the overall World Cup lead thanks to his two victories during the American leg of the World Cup.
The next World Cup race is on Monday, December 26 in Heusden-Zolder.
2016 Namur UCI Cyclocross World Cup Results - Elite Men
|1||Mathieu VAN DER POEL||NED||22||1:04:20|
|2||Wout VAN AERT||BEL||23||1:04:36|
|6||Corne VAN KESSEL||NED||26||1:05:52|
|17||Ismael ESTEBAN AGUANDO||ESP||34||1:07:49|
|24||Javier RUIZ DE LARRINAGA IBAÑEZ||ESP||38||1:08:48|
|29||David VAN DER POEL||NED||25||1:09:40|
|31||Patrick VAN LEEUWEN||NED||32||1:09:49|
|44||Thijs VAN AMERONGEN||NED||31|
|46||Kevin SUAREZ FERNANDEZ||ESP||23|
|52||Asier ARREGUI DOMINGUEZ||ESP||39|
|55||Vincent DIAS DOS SANTOS||LUX||27|