The men were hot to trot at the final race of the Hansgrohe Superprestige series in Middelkerke, Belgium. With Mathieu van der Poel (Beobank-Corendon) atop the general classification, followed by Wout van Aert (Veranda’s Willems – Crelan) and Laurens Sweeck (ERA Real Estate – Circus), it was expected to be business as usual — a hammerfest — and indeed it was.
Middelkerke was a double-double-feature: Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, and Laurens Sweeck stormed the Men’s Elite podium, and kept the same order for the Superprestige general classification podium. The Women’s race was another serving of déjà vu, with Sanne Cant, Sophie de Boer, and Ellen van Loy as 1-2-3.
Le podium du #SPMiddelkerke (et du @SuperprestigeCX) :
3. @LaurensSweeck pic.twitter.com/f6SVaEBkAj
— CX Stats (@cxstats) February 11, 2017
Van Aert took the holeshot, and amazingly there were no crashes on the opening straight, despite riders whipping their bikes from side to side in the opening sprint. The course was highly technical right at the get-go, which caused a Slinky-effect, as riders sprinted to features, only to slow to a near stop as they waited for the racer in front to move through it. Much like in the Women’s Elite race, every rider had their own line through the long sandpits, with some choosing to dismount, and some choosing to muscle through the deep trenches.
Total focus #spmiddelkerke #cyclocross https://t.co/zrO4wXxJ7K pic.twitter.com/rHgc87FqT4
— cyclephotos (@cyclephotos) February 11, 2017
Van Aert, Vincent Baestaens (VZW Koninklijke Stoempersclub), and Van der Poel were the leaders for the first half lap, with the rest of the race strung out behind them. Baestaens had a small crash attempting to hop up the first ledge on a very steep run-up, and slid back to fourth place, ahead of Sweeck and behind Corne van Kessel (Telenet Fidea Lions).
After hopping the only two barriers on course as other dismounted, Van der Poel led the charge at the end of the first lap, with Van Aert, Sweeck, Gianni Vermeersch (Steylaerts – Verona), Baestaens, and Lars van der Haar (Telenet Fidea Lions) behind him.
The full-body intensity of this race was obvious early on. Wout was seen shaking his left hand out several times on the first two laps, and Van der Poel sat up to stretch out his back after just a few laps. Sweeck, who had been sitting in with Van Aert and Van der Poel, dropped his chain going up one of the many steep run-ups, which squashed his race position completely.
Van der Poel, who took the win at Middelkerke last year, showed off his supreme bike handling skills on the technical course in challenging conditions. He flew down the hill that gave Cant trouble in the Elite Women’s race, while his pursuers had their feet out to balance. He was the only lead racer to bunnyhop the barriers, and he manualed the final ditch leading into the paved start/finish with a precision that would make most seasoned mountain bikers envious.
In-race bike wash #spmiddelkerke #cyclocross https://t.co/SJHENy0Id6 pic.twitter.com/jeKI8q5L8n
— cyclephotos (@cyclephotos) February 11, 2017
After two eight-minute laps, it was Van der Poel and Van Aert in the lead, followed by Van Kessel and Vermeersch. Behind these duos were Van der Haar, Sweeck, Jim Aernouts (Telenet Fidea Lions), Tom Meeusen (Telenet Fidea Lions), and Tim Merlier (Veranda’s Willems – Crelan).
By the third lap, the top five had figured out how to navigate the sand, which was one of the sections where Van der Poel was putting time in on them. After sprinting the long straight-away that followed, racers slammed into the first step of the steep run-up, bouncing from their saddles and quickly throwing a leg over to run to the crest of a difficult but short descent.
Suddenly, but not surprisingly, it was Van der Poel and Van Aert out front again, trying out the lines that each thought to be fastest, hammering away to increase the gap over Van der Haar and others.
4th in the last SP of Middelkerke. Bummer I didn't make podium 🙁 how ever this many people at my camper makes up for it all! 🙂 #thanks pic.twitter.com/B4f6hdPTOL
— Lars van der Haar (@larsvanderhaar) February 11, 2017
Kevin Pauwels was nowhere to be seen, and announcers took note of this, saying that maybe it “just wasn’t a good day” for him.
Van der Poel started riding away from Van Aert on the long windy, wide-open power sections that led into an off-camber descent, and soon enough opened a gap of almost 10 seconds. Meanwhile, Van der Haar slid out while running his bike through a tight corner, just barely holding it together, flinging his bike up in the air as he skidded sideways.
His forearms resting on his bars on the paved sections, it seemed that Van Aert knew the win would not be his today. Despite being over 15 seconds behind, Van Aert took a bike change for the last quarter of the last lap. Van der Poel faltered slightly in the hilly sand pit, and Sweeck had Van Aert in his sights, but their final positions had already been determined.
20th Victory of this season by @mathieuvdpoel today at the #Superprestige #Middelkerke!
— ShimanoROAD (@ShimanoROAD) February 11, 2017
Van der Poel rode across the mud-coated finish line, looking tired but pleased, taking another Middelkerk win. Van Aert followed, 20 seconds back, and Sweeck was 10 second behind him.
2017 Hansgrohe Superprestige #8 - Noordzeecross Middelkerke - Elite Men's Results
|1||Mathieu VAN DER POEL||NED||22||56:24:00||80|
|2||Wout VAN AERT||BEL||23||56:44:00||60|
|4||Lars VAN DER HAAR||NED||26||57:01:00||30|
|8||Corne VAN KESSEL||NED||26||58:19:00||15|
|23||Twan VAN DEN BRAND||NED||28||1:01:19|
|25||Kenneth VAN COMPERNOLLE||BEL||29||1:01:46|
|27||Patrick VAN LEEUWEN||NED||32||1:02:11|
|28||David VAN DER POEL||NED||25||1:02:14|
|30||Javier RUIZ DE LARRINAGA IBANEZ||ESP||38||1:02:54|
|33||Thijs VAN AMERONGEN||NED||31||1:03:27|
|35||Dave DE CLEYN||BEL||29||1:04:46|