With two laps to go, the DVV Verzekeringen Trofee race at Azencross was shaping up to one of the most exciting cyclocross races this season. A group of six riders had reeled in an early attack from Mathieu van der Poel (Beobank-Corendon), and Tom Meeusen (Telenet Fidea Lions) and Toon Aerts (Telenet Fidea Lions) were giving Van der Poel and Wout Van Aert (Crelan-Vastgoedservice) everything they could handle with attacks of their own.
Shortly before the bell lap, an enthralling race turned to a somber afternoon in an instant that made the rest of the bike race a distant afterthought.
The second half of the Azencross course featured a series of up and downs over a berm that ran through the race venue. While jockeying for position before one of the berms, Mathieu van der Poel bumped into another rider shortly before launching up into the air. As he came down to land, he fell over his handlebars and hit his head on the ground as he lost control of the bike.
At first it appeared that Van der Poel was letting the other riders ride past him before moving out of the way, but it quickly became apparent that something was seriously wrong. Medical staff attended to him for the next ten minutes before he was placed on an immobilizing stretcher and taken from the venue in an ambulance.
Early reports on Twitter indicate he was knocked unconscious, but has regained consciousness and is being treated at the hospital as a precaution. We are following the Twitter hashtag #Azencross for updates about Van der Poel's health.
An Exciting Start at Azencross
Earlier in the race, it looked like Wout Van Aert would struggle to follow up his impressive win at Heusden-Zolder with a second straight victory. Mathieu van der Poel made his customary early race attack during lap 3 while Van Aert was caught at the back of a large group of riders. Van Aert would eventually make his way to the front of the chase group and worked to pull a group of Tom Meeusen, Michael Vanthourenhout (Marlux-Napoleon Games) and Kevin Pauwels (Marlux-Napoleon Games) back toward the leader.
The group made the catch at the end of lap 6 and with three to go, Van Aert made his move through the start/finish stretch and took the lead heading over the flyover at the start of the lap.
During the 2016-2017 season, large groups at the front of the race have been a rarity, and if they have formed, Van der Poel or Van Aert have quickly put in attacks to break them up. Thursday was different. The other riders in the lead group sought to make their mark on the affair and were determined to not let the young phenoms easily escape.
Inside three laps to go, Tom Meeusen pulled to the front and did his part to pull the group through the dense fog that formed in the Belgian town of Loenhout. As the race entered the penultimate lap, Michael Vanthourenhout decided it was his turn to put in work to help his teammate Kevin Pauwels.
While Vanthourenhout was attacking, a slip in a corner by Tom Meeusen caused a near disaster for the Telenet Fidea contingent when Corne van Kessel (Telenet Fidea Lions) and Aerts got caught up behind him. The three Lions would eventually bridge the gap back to the lead four and a group of seven re-formed halfway through the penultimate lap shortly before Van der Poel's crash.
Van Aert's Second Straight Becomes an Afterthought
Mathieu van der Poel was sitting second wheel behind Toon Aerts went he went down. The crash allowed Aerts to open up small gap of two seconds on the other riders heading onto the pavement. Van Aert wasted no time animating the bell lap with a second attack through the start/finish straight and up and over the flyover.
Located shortly after the flyover was a left turn into a section of deep mud that proved tricky throughout the afternoon. Earlier in the race, Van Aert had his chase of Van der Poel interrupted when he was forced to dismount in the section. The last trip through the mud was a clean affair for the World Champion, and his attack continued to extend his lead. The gap back to second would reach five seconds when Van Aert passed through the berm section, and he would hold off a charge from Tom Meeusen to win his second Azencross and second straight race.
Michael Vanthourenhout found an extra match after his long pull at the front and led the chase group at the start of the bell lap. Tom Meeusen would eventually take over the second position hold it through the finish to take the second spot. Kevin Pauwels clipped Toon Aerts in the finishing sprint to finish in his customary third place position. Aerts finished fourth and Vanthourenhout fifth.
After the race the top riders' faces made it clear that their thoughts were with their fallen opponent and not on their podium finishes. Wout Van Aert's thoughts were quickly with his injured archrival, (translated from sport.be) "It did not look good, but let's not jump to conclusions. Maybe he comes home and everything is okay. Hopefully Mathieu quickly gets back on the bike."
A Somber Afternoon
The next DVV Verzekeringen race is New Year's Day at the GP Sven Nys in Baal.
Our thoughts and prayers here at Cyclocross Magazine are with Mathieu van der Poel and his family. According to his latest tweet, it looks like he is okay but we will keep monitoring his health while we wish him a speedy recovery.
See all the Elite Men's race photos below the race results table below.
2016 Azencross Loenhout DVV Verzekeringen Trofee Results - Elite Men
|1||Wout VAN AERT||BEL||23||1:01:33||80|
|6||Corne VAN KESSEL||NED||26||1:01:55||20|
|19||Lars VAN DER HAAR||NED||26||1:04:10|
|20||Yorben VAN TICHELT||BEL||23||1:05:03|
|30||Boy VAN POPPEL||NED||29|
|37||DANIEL ANIA GONZALEZ||ESP||30|
|DNF||Mathieu VAN DER POEL||NED||22|
|DNF||David VAN DER POEL||NED||25|