Mathieu Santa Poel and Wout Sant Aert provided all the good girls and boys in ‘Crossville with a Crossmas present at the Hansgrohe Superprestige Diegem on Friday. The two rivals followed up Sunday’s epic race at Namur with another thrilling edition of the MvdP/WVA Trofee series. The two rivals went into the last lap together and once again Van der Poel used his sand skills to his advantage. With one strong burst through the sand pit and barriers, he opened up the gap on Van Aert, and barely kept enough margin to join Niels Albert and Roland Liboton as the only racers to win the event three straight times.
The Diegem, aka Suburbscross, race is held in and around the streets of Diegem, which is located just outside the Belgian capital of Brussels. The 2016 track featured an interesting layout, with many narrow sections and tight corners that often made good real estate tough to come by. There were a number of technical features, including a slick off-camber, a sand pit, and two muddy corners, followed by open power sections where riders could shut down gaps if they had the legs to do so.
The rare night race before the holiday weekend brought a raucous crowd out to enjoy the battle between Van der Poel and Van Aert. The later start time also allowed fans across the pond the rare opportunity to enjoy a mid-day Euro cyclocross feast.
Fast Start for Van der Poel and Van Aert
Unlike the Women’s race held earlier in the evening, the Men’s race started at a blistering pace. Van der Poel (Beobank-Corendon) took the holeshot and went charging through the off-camber while the field started to string out behind him. The off-camber proved an important feature in the Women’s race, but with a distinctive high line emerging, it would be less of a menace for the men during their time on the Diegem circuit.
Midway through the first lap, it appeared a lead group would join the two rivals in attempt to break up the standard two-man affair. The group, however, did not last long. Wout van Aert took over the lead heading into the sand pit and made the interesting decision to dismount and run while at the front. Van der Poel accelerated past him, and when the dust had settled from the first lap, Van der Poel and Van Aert had established a seven second lead on a group of seven riders led by Toon Aerts (Telenet Fidea Lions).
The chase group would swell to twelve riders shortly before the second trip through the sand. Aerts was able to break out of the group at the sand pit, and Kevin Pauwels (Marlux-Napoleon Games) followed suit during the subsequent technical sections. With two laps in the books, Aerts and Pauwels sat 20 seconds behind the lead duo while Gianni Vermeersch (Team Steylaerts) emerged in fifth, four seconds behind Aerts and Pauwels.
Van der Poel and Van Aert Size Each Other Up
As the race entered the middle portion, Van der Poel and Van Aert traded leads, but neither was able to establish any kind of meaningful gap. The race at Diegem had a bit of a “grass crit” vibe (an American term for flat, non-technical races). It became apparently that the two rivals would stay together and follow the script, leaving one or two moments during the last lap likely to decide the ending.
Fans and the two riders were likely taking stock of their respective strengths and weaknesses as they battled back and forth into the evening. On the fourth lap, Van der Poel tried launching a powerful attack up the false flat through the streets of Diegem, but Van Aert was able to snuff it out and nothing came of the effort. Van Aert did not have to burn the many matches he did due to mistakes at Namur, and he definitely looked very strong in the power sections with the extra gas in the tank.
During the fifth lap, Van Aert slipped out on the last muddy corner that claimed Cant at the end of the Women’s race and allowed Van der Poel to briefly open up a two-second gap heading through the start/finish section. One could have easily envisioned the last lap being decided by who hits the rut through the muddy depression first, especially after Van Aert’s bobble demonstrated how easily a gap could be opened at the feature.
With three laps to go, Van Aert closed the gap from the muddy slip and took the lead heading into the sand pit. He curiously lost his balance again and was forced to dismount. Van der Poel pulled past him and again opened up a small lead that lasted through the off-camber section of next lap.
If it was not the muddy corner that would be the difference, the combination of the power straight past a soccer field, sand pit, and barriers would be the decisive moment in the race. Throughout the evening, Van der Poel rode the sand pit and bunny-hopped the barriers smoother and faster than Van Aert. On the penultimate lap, the Dutch rider was clearly a second quicker through the sand pit/barrier combination, and subsequent events would indicate Van Aert knew it.
Another Thrilling Last Lap
Van der Poel and Van Aert entered the bell lap together. Van der Poel sat first wheel and held it through the off-camber and ensuing power straight past another soccer field. There was little doubt that Van Aert would try to make a move to hit the sand pit first, but the question was where would the move come?
The definitive moment of the race occurred on a punchy uphill shortly before the pre-sand pit power straight. Riders dropped into a depression and then made a left-hand turn into a very short, but very steep, incline. Van Aert tried to punch his way past Van der Poel on the incline, but the Dutch rider displayed the savvy of a crafty veteran and shut the door on Van Aert’s attempted move. Although not quite as dramatic as his move in the sand during the epic Scheldecross finish, the strategic move displayed Van der Poel’s varied arsenal of cyclocross skills.
Van der Poel was quicker through the sand section at Diegem all evening. On the last lap, he got an early jump on the feature he owned throughout the race by dropping the hammer on the power straight that leads into the sand. Van Aert was unable to counter the power, and Van der Poel’s gap grew through the sand and the barriers that followed.
The three-time champion threw in a crowd-pleasing tail whip over the last flyover (as he did in 2015) for good measure and cruised across the finish line just ahead of a hard-charging Van Aert, who, to his credit, gave everything he had though the finish line, just a wheel behind his ready-to-celebrate rival.
The win was Van der Poel’s third straight at Diegem and it put the head-to-head battle this season at 13-4 in Van der Poel’s favor (h/t crossresults.com).
Best of the Rest for Pauwels Again
While the two dominant rivals were battling at the front of the race, a great race within the race for third was emerging as well. During the second and third laps, Toon Aerts and Kevin Pauwels broke from a large group, and Gianni Vermeersch eventually broke away to dangle in fifth about five seconds behind Aerts and Pauwels. Vermeersch’s pursuit would eventually end inside three to go, when he suffered a mechanical and was forced to run nearly half the course.
On the penultimate lap, Aerts rode the sand better than Pauwels and opened up a sizeable five-second gap thanks to the effort. Pauwels recovered from the slow sand section and worked back to within just two seconds heading into the bell lap.
Aerts would hold the lead for the first third of the last lap, but Pauwels was able to turn up the pwoer and surge up the false flat on the streets of Diegem to catch Aerts. The frequent Best of the Rester stayed on the throttle through the following technical features and power section, and when he had cleared the sand pit he had opened up a gap for third that he would not relinquish. He bobbled through the last muddy turn, but it had no bearing on the final outcome.
Pauwels finished 24 seconds back in third. Aerts was fourth (40″) and Jens Adams (Crelan-Vastgoedservice) rounded out the top five (1’14”). Canadian Geoff Kabush (SCOTT 3-Rox Racing) finished on the lead lap in 23rd. Americans Stephen Hyde and Eric Thompson, who both raced in Namur, did not take the start.
Van der Poel came into Diegem ahead in the overall Superprestige standings, and the win allowed him to extend his lead by one point to 89-85. Laurens Sweeck is the current leader in the Best of the Rest race with a 7-point advantage over Jens Adams.
Cyclocross fans have a few days to enjoy their eggnog energy drinks before the cyclocross action heats up again at the famed World Cup at Heusden-Zolder on Monday.
The next stop on the Hansgrohe Superprestige series is February 5th at Hoogstraten.
2016 Superprestige Diegem Results - Elite Men
|1||Mathieu VAN DER POEL||NED||22||1:06:22||80|
|2||Wout VAN AERT||BEL||23||1:06:22||60|
|6||David VAN DER POEL||NED||25||1:07:45||20|
|15||Ismael ESTEBAN AGUANDO||ESP||34||1:09:28||1|
|20||Javier RUIZ DE LARRINAGA IBAÑEZ||ESP||38||1:10:50|
|21||Kevin SUAREZ FERNANDEZ||ESP||23||1:10:55|
|27||Dave DE CLEYN||BEL||29|
|28||Boy VAN POPPEL||NED||29|
|37||DANIEL ANIA GONZALEZ||ESP||30|