by Christine Vardaros
At Elite Men’s National Cyclocross Championships in The Netherlands, there are two powerful guys expected to battle for top glory. They are U23 rider Mathieu van der Poel [BKCP-Powerplus] and current National Champion Lars van der Haar [Giant – Alpecin], arguably two of the top five world’s best crossers. If the race plays out as expected on paper, Van der Poel will emerge from the field first to take the jersey as he’s often come out on top when the two of them have gone head to head. But thankfully races are not contested on paper, but rather in the field where anything can happen. This course is a particularly tricky one, in fact. Covered with mud from the recent high influx of rain, mixed with long stretches of sand, it can certainly play a role in the outcome.
Van der Poel, along with 20 year old Wout van Aert [Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace], make up the dynamic kiddie duo who have been making a serious dent the elite men’s field the last months. At 19 years of age, Van der Poel has won five events this season, all in the Elite category. While his results make him a big name, you’d never guess it when you come in contact with this laid back, easygoing kid.
Van der Haar, while a bit older at 23, has already collected four wins including the muddy technical Valkenburg World Cup as well as the super speedy Zolder World Cup, in addition to his eight podiums. He may have skipped sand-riddled Koksijde due to fever, but he has already proven himself to be adept at sand riding when he won the 2012 U23 World Championships held on the same course in Koksijde.
As skilled and diverse as Van der Haar may be, he will be battling someone who has also proven himself a worthy opponent – especially in the sand. When the two rode head-to-head, early this season on yet another sand course at Superprestige Gieten, Van der Poel came out on top with Van der Haar having to settle for 2nd. The most recent event where they came together was for the very fast Superprestige Diegem course held December 28th where Van der Poel easily rode away from the lead bunch containing Van der Haar.
What Van der Haar has in his favor, though, is his extremely tenacious riding style that has him fighting to the end, no matter how bleak a situation may appear. His ability to handle pressure is clearly visible by his friendly demeanor both before and after races where he’s consistently seen flashing a smile or exchanging a few words with his supporters. He is often heard speaking English, in fact, as his girlfriend is former two-time Junior Road World Champion Lucy Garner from the UK.
While the two guys are battling in front for the win, the clear favorite for the final spot on the podium is 23 year old Corné van Kessel [Telenet-Fidea] – by far the third best Dutch rider. Van Kessel kicked his season off well with a beautiful podium at Valkenburg World Cup held in his own country. During the Christmas season, he had a 5th and 3rd respectively in Namur and Zolder World Cups.
Rounding out the top 5 is expected to be Mathieu’s older brother David van der Poel [BKCP-Powerplus]. This 22 year old started off well with a 4th at the Gieten Superprestige, then picked it up again during the Christmas period with a 6th in Zolder World Cup followed by a 5th at Superprestige Diegem.
As long as former pro mountain biker Niels Wubben [Telenet-Fidea] has a solid ride, he should round out the top five.