In a tight race that saw the World Champion Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and past winner Kevin Pauwels duke it out in the closing minutes, the Men’s Elite race at the fourth round of the World Cup at Namur was taken by van der Poel, apparently now well recovered from his knee injury.
There was a massive field at the start for the Men’s Elite race with more than 70 riders on the line. In a turn of events from most of the season’s racing, it was none other than Sven Nys on the front off the line and with the holeshot ahead of the youngsters in the field. Yesterday’s winner van Aert and the World Champion along with protagonists Lars van der Haar, Kevin Pauwels and Clément Venturini were all in the mostly compact field.
As he lead the first lap there were huge cheers for Nys who rode a cantilever equipped bike during the race despite being seen pre-riding on a disc-equipped model. In the field behind, van der Poel sat seventh and van der Haar was eighth along with the other contenders, seemingly happy to let Nys dictate the race’s opening.
Nys wasn’t in it to parade around and made an early move that only van Aert responded to on a steep pitch half way into the first lap. At the end of lap one, it was Nys, van Aert and Tom Meeusen with van der Poel and others biding their time.
For his part, the European Champion van der Haar was wanting to up the pace and he jumped to third position and had a look around to see who was doing what. But everyone was content to hold the status quo as the leading group of 10 to 12 riders took shape.
For a period the front group was happy to have the race lead change as a few riders tested their legs and those of the other racers. Van Aert took the lead briefly with Nys, still looking strong and van der Haar behind. Then passing the pits before the biggest drop off on course, Toon Aerts took to the front. For a while it seemed as if Nys and van Aert were changing spots at each turn and it was hard to tell who was marking who.
At the second pass of the rutted off camber section Nys ran the bike, but relinquished no ground as most rode through right foot unclipped to aid balance and momentum. What Nys was riding was the following run up. Lap after lap at the opening Nys powered his way over the top as others ran. It appeared only marginally faster, but seemed to give him a slight advantage at the top as he was able to get moving more quickly than others who were remounting.
Aerts keeps the pressure on at the start of lap three with van Aert and Nys in the chase group of eight or nine, which also included van der Haar and van der Poel. That group shuffled spots quite a bit as they finally got back on terms with Aerts. Once together, Nys continued to ride the run up most everyone else is dismounting for.
Finally a group of about eight settled in with five of those riders taking new bikes before the fourth lap. With the course drier than past editions, the need to pit seemed fairly infrequent.
At the start of lap four Nys was suddenly on the back of the group and appeared to be looking back at his rear wheel. He was wearing bib 13, but run right-side up. Was it luck that was catching Nys or had the effort to lead the race from the line finally started to get to him?
On the next pass of the off camber ruts van der Haar took to the front of affairs and sprinted up the next run up on foot. Whereas he had ridden it to this point, Nys finally ceded and ran as well. All the while, van der Poel sat in the group watching and seeing what played out.
With five to go van Aert took to the front and van der Haar immediately countered with van Aert and van der Poel giving chase. But it was short lived as van der Haar hit the deck on a right hander. He was able to get up and hold his spot, but he seemed shaken and it clearly took some wind out of his sails for the moment.
With a lead group of eight, and with Nys just hanging on, it swelled by one to nine with Klaas Vantournout joining in. Just then, van der Haar put in another dig and Sven really started to find himself at odds with the leaders’ pace.
Content to mostly ride in the group, van Aert went to the front in a bid to get clear but took the World Champion with him. And at four laps to go, it was that pair along with 2012 and 2014 Namur World Cup winner Kevin Pauwles in the lead, with Venturini in no man’s land and a smaller group contenting the Belgian National Champ and Nys further back.
By the time the race was at three laps to go, the World Champ had yet to see the front. And Pauwels was trying to follow his lead, having taken only one short pull. It was van Aert dragging them around and right as Venturini was seemingly about to bridge, van der Poel took flight for the first time. Behind, van der Haar and Vantournout were chasing, but it appeared too little, too late.
Clearly fading from his early race efforts, Nys signaled to his pit crew that he was out of it, though he rode on and finished. Ahead, the leading trio was seeing two to go with van der Haar and the Belgian champ only eight seconds adrift.
And that’s when the World Champion turned it up again. Van der Poel’s attack finally sprung the lead trio clear and he kept the gas on all the way through the rutted off camber and the following run up. Venturini, who had ridden a nearly perfect race, faded and was caught by van der Haar and Vantournout.
Pauwels finally went to the front for real the first time at one to go. The leading three were now clearly in it for the win as the European and Belgian champions were back 20 seconds.
Pauwels’ attack did not shake the youngsters and van der Poel took the lead once more with a short attack before the course’s largest drop off. Van Aert countered and from there it was a fist fight with the two riders trading blows. Pauwels who had given up a few bike lengths momentarily heading to the off camber pass made it back to the duo at the top of the next run up, but never saw the front again.
At the following run up the World Champ rode most of the way up giving him a gap on van Aert and even further distancing Pauwels, who could only watch as on the final climb van Aert then took the lead.
But it wasn’t enough.
The World Champion van der Poel countered and took the right hander onto the finishing straight in the lead. Sprinting momentarily, he looked over his shoulder and realized he had enough time to celebrate the victory, arms raised, crossing the line ahead of second place Wout and Pauwels, in third.