Lars van der Haar again sprints to the win to claim the U23 World Title.

View our complete coverage of the 2012 UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Koksijde, Belgium on our Full Coverage page.

by Robbie Carver and Christine Vardaros

In an exciting finale that saw thrown elbows, last minute bobbles and a sprint to the line, reigning U23 world champion Lars van der Haar (Netherlands) retained his crown against Belgian rider Wietse Bosmans. Van der Haar’s compatriot, Michiel van der Heijden, took third, while an impressive ride by Arnoud Jouffroy saw the Frenchman just barely run out of road as he caught the tail end of the leaders, taking fourth. American Zach McDonald overcame a poor start to work his way up to 12th place.

From the gun, Lars van der Haar made it clear that he would be defending his title with everything he had, as the Dutchman launched himself onto the course and immediately established a solo lead in the deep, damp sand. Behind him, the race quickly sorted itself into those who could ride the famous dunes, and those – either for lack of power or lack of room – who couldn’t. As Van der Haar surged ahead, Americans Zach McDonald and Cody Kaiser got caught in the mess, coming out of the sand in the bottom 30.

Not content to let Van der Haar ride away with yet another World Championship, Belgian rider Wietse Bosmans drew motivation from the thunderous crowd and clawed onto the Dutchman’s wheel. As positions changed behind them, the duo would battle back and forth for the rest of the race, with Bosmans proving the stronger rider in the sand, often gapping the Dutchman but never able to shake him for long.

What ultimately tipped the scales was an impassioned ride by another Van der – Michiel van der Heijden, who pulled himself up to the two leaders. Van der Haar, noticing that his compatriot was nearing, turned off the gas and allowed Van der Heijden to catch on – although a significant bobble in the sand gave Bosmans more of a gap than Van der Haar had planned on, forcing the duo to chase hard to catch back onto the Belgian. From then on, it was a two-versus-one affair, and Bosmans would be on the ropes for the rest of the race as the Dutchmen continually attacked him. Indeed, as the trio came across for the last lap, the two Dutch riders were seen sharing a few words with each other, clearly working out the best strategy for handling the strong Belgian.

As the battle raged at the front, Zach McDonald shook off his poor start and began the task of reeling in the riders ahead of him, showing his skill in the sand by riding sections that most had to dismount. Halfway through the race, he had moved into 20th place.

Behind the leaders, a constantly shifting chase group did their best to regain contact, with Swiss rider Arnaud Grand, Polish rider Marek Konwa, Dutchmen Mike Teunissen and Michael Vanthourenhout, and Frenchman Arnoud Jouffroy all jostling for position. A mechanical dropped Vanthourenhout – pro ’crosser Dieter’s younger brother, in his first U23 bid–from the chase, and perhaps the saddest image of the race was the Belgian leaning his head against the barriers, not wanting to watch as his chance at the podium rode away.

The ride of the day has to go to Jouffroy, who cleared himself from the rest of the chasers and spent the remainder of the race gaining back ground on the three leaders. Though it ultimately wouldn’t be enough, the Frenchmen came within striking distance of third place just as Van der Heijden crossed the line. Had Jouffroy had 200 more meters, the podium may have looked a bit different.

As the massive crowds cheered them on, the race at the front continued to be tactical. Bosmans refused to go down without a fight, and used his superior skill in the sand to put the Dutch riders in trouble. Behind them, McDonald had clawed his way into 16th place.

What’s surely being discussed heatedly across Belgium right now is what happened in the final sand section of the last lap. Bosmans was leading heading into a sharp left-hand turn, and Van der Haar came in fast on the inside. The two rubbed shoulders as a result, pushing Bosmans off his line slightly and forcing him to dismount. Van der Heijden was taking the outside line and attempted to take advantage of Bosmans’ dismount, running past the Belgian to take second position, but Bosmans threw his shoulder into the Dutchman, causing Van der Heijden to hit the fencing, his bike thrown sideways. Just how intentional the scuffle was remains unclear, but what was clear was that the pressure was mounting for all three riders as the distance to the finish rapidly diminished. The contact ultimately snapped Van der Heijden’s connection to the leaders, and as the riders approached the final run-up, the race for the title was down to just two.

A significant bobble by Van der Haar, just as Bosmans attacked on the run-up, sent a collective gasp across Belgium, as the host nation saw the possibility of a Belgian win nearly unfold. But Van der Haar showed why he is the defending champion, and recovered quickly and then attacked Bosmans. Van der Haar hit the tarmac first and unleashed the sprint that won him the title last year, raising his hands for the second year in a row, retaining his crown as a clearly disappointed Bosmans crossed the line behind him.

“I had a very good start in the beginning,” said Van der Haar. “I tried to get a gap and make the race hard. Witse (Bosmans) was really, really good in the sand, and I had to work to keep up with him several times. When I saw that Wietse rode the sand really beautifully I got a bit nervous.  But I knew I was faster in other sections, which helped me to keep my confidence right to the finish line. I knew that if Witse led through the final sand section, I would lose the championship. On the last time through the final grass section, when I passed into the lead I knew I’d won.”

Van der Heijden managed to hold off the late charge of Jouffroy, putting two Dutchmen on the podium. “I could ride through the sand well,” he said. “The course was a good one for me. I am really excited that I could ride along at the front. Maybe I could have placed higher but you just don’t know how it will all play out.”

Lars van der Haar doing his now signature bite of his World Championship Gold. © Thomas van Bracht

Belgian Laurens Sweeck rounded out the top five, with Konwa and Teunissen close behind. Popping his signature wheelie, Zach McDonald crossed the line in 12th place – an incredible ride considering his poor start. Cody Kaiser never regained his momentum after the start, and finished a lap down from the leaders.

“In the beginning of the race, I couldn’t get in my pedal and botched my start again,” said McDonald. “I’m f**ing myself a lot and I did it again this race. After I found myself so far back, I thought I can either quit or keep going. I saw how many people I could pick off on the first lap then just kept going from there. I’d just catch group after group but never rested – not even the start/finish strip. I’d take a few seconds here and there but then I’d just charge it again. On the second lap, I was alone on the sand sections so I could ride them and made up a lot of time there. I am glad the season is over!”

Yannick Eckmann, the German racer who lives and races in the US, finished 29th in his first U23 Worlds bid. “I felt strong in the beginning of the race,” he said, “but then at the end of the race, my fire burned out and I faded a bit. I see it as a lesson for the future so I can do better. Back in the US I race against the Elites, but it’s also a lot of fun racing against the big guys here – I like it a lot. I will continue to do both road and cyclocross racing for at least the next two years. A big thanks to everyone for cheering for me and helping me out this season – especially my parents and my brother!”

Bosmans, showing the pressure of being a Belgian ’crosser in Koksijde, cried into his hands as his coach consoled him, no doubt congratulating him on his superhuman ride. But when later criticized for riding a tactically imperfect race,  Bosmans responded, “I don’t think of it that I made mistakes. I really did what I could but between the two Netherlanders it was difficult. Michiel [van der Heijden] played a very important role in the finale. I didn’t have super legs today – a super day I didn’t have. Second place was the highest possible for me. If I made no mistakes just before the finish, then it would most likely have been a mass sprint anyway. And a good chance I still would have been caught at the finish line with Lars behind me.”

In response to Sven Nys’ comments on television that Bosmans botched up his chance for the win by simply riding tempo, combined with a tactical error, Bosmans responded, “After 20 minutes you still have 30 minutes left so you can’t go as hard as you can in the beginning. Honestly said, yeah I missed a chance. Second is second. I tried what I could. I tried to get away in the sand many times but it didn’t work. I was looking for the right moment to get away. And on TV everything looks easier than in reality. Nys has a lot more experience – many more years; he would probably do things differently. I still have another year in U23’s where I can apply my lessons learned.”

Van der Haar also has another year of U23 eligibility, but is putting his sights a bit higher. When asked whether he’d race the Elite Worlds in 2013, he responded, “The chance is big. I’ll have to check to see if it’s possible first – if it can work out with my team and with UCI. It would be difficult to stay in the U23 another year. It will be tough most of all mentally. Next week I’ll let it be known what happens.”  As for his commitment to the sport of cyclocross, Van der Haar said, “I will stay in the field as long as I like it – and I think that will be a very long time.”

View our complete coverage of the 2012 UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Koksijde, Belgium on our Full Coverage page.

Bart Hazen Gallery:

Thomas van Bracht Gallery:

Full Results:

2012 U23 Cyclocross World Championships Results: Koksijde, Belgium

1Lars Van Der Haar (Netherlands)0:49:20
2Wietse Bosmans (Belgium)0:00:01
3Michiel Van Der Heijden (Netherlands)0:00:04
4Arnaud Jouffroy (France)0:00:05
5Laurens Sweeck (Belgium)0:00:50
6Marek Konwa (Poland)0:00:56
7Mike Teunissen (Netherlands)0:01:03
8Arnaud Grand (Switzerland)0:01:13
9David Menut (France)
10Gianni Vermeersch (Belgium)0:01:28
11Vinnie Braet (Belgium)
12Zach Mcdonald (United States Of America)0:01:48
13David Van Der Poel (Netherlands)0:01:55
14Julian Alaphilippe (France)0:02:04
15Stan Godrie (Netherlands)0:02:07
16Tomas Paprstka (Czech Republic)0:02:08
17Vojtech Nipl (Czech Republic)0:02:17
18Clément Venturini (France)0:02:30
19Elia Silvestri (Italy)0:02:49
20Jan Nesvadba (Czech Republic)0:02:50
21Bryan Falaschi (Italy)0:03:18
22Karel Hnik (Czech Republic)0:03:21
23Michael (Jr) Schweizer (Germany)0:03:22
24Lars Forster (Switzerland)0:03:39
25Kenneth Hansen (Denmark)0:03:42
26Michael Vanthourenhout (Belgium)0:04:04
27Igor Smarzaro (Italy)0:04:07
28Micki Van Empel (Netherlands)0:04:13
29Yannick Eckmann (Germany)0:04:14
30Kenta Gallagher (Great Britain)0:04:20
31Max Walsleben (Germany)0:04:22
32Fabian Lienhard (Switzerland)0:04:41
33Michael Wildhaber (Switzerland)
34Daniele Braidot (Italy)0:05:44
35Emil Arvid Olsen (Denmark)0:05:50
-1lapLuca Braidot (Italy)
-1lapJonathan Lastra Martinez (Spain)
-1lapCody Kaiser (United States Of America)
-1lapYannick Mayer (Germany)
-1lapJack Clarkson (Great Britain)
-1lapPablo Rodriguez Guede (Spain)
-2lapsWojciech Malec (Poland)
-2lapsJon Gomez Elorriaga (Spain)
-2lapsPatryk Kostecki (Poland)
-3lapsInigo Gomez Elorriaga (Spain)
-3lapsFelix Coté Bouvette (Canada)
-3lapsLex Reichling (Luxembourg)
-3lapsLudwig Söderquist (Sweden)
-3lapsBartosz Pilis (Poland)
-3lapsJaroslav Chalas (Slovakia)
-3lapsAlexander Gehbauer (Austria)
-3lapsLuke Gray (Great Britain)
-4lapsDomas Manikas (Lithuania)