TABOR, Czech Republic-With high expectations on the young riders heading into the race, carrying over from the last round of the World Cup at Hoogerheide, big questions were in everyone’s mind: Was this the year of the changing of the guard? Would the young guns steal the show or would veterans like Kevin Pauwels, Sven Nys and Klaas Vantornout teach the young riders about performing on the world’s biggest stage?
With an exception of two near crashes while hopping the barriers, Matheiu van der Poel, nicknamed “the Sniper” for his ability to pull the trigger for a perfect attack, answered those questions as he rode a nearly flawless race to win the 2015 Cyclocross World Championships (See our profile of van der Poel’s Sniper-themed Stevens disc cyclocross bike here). He proved why he belongs in the Men’s Elite field rather than in the U23s. He soared to a solo victory as the youngest rider to win the Elite Men’s race, and led the youngest-ever podium of a combined 63 years of age (last year, in Hoogerheide, it was 97).
Wout van Aert pounded his bars and slammed his front wheel in frustration at the finish line despite outsprinting Lars van der Haar to win the silver.
Rewards for the Impatient and Risk Takers
Nerves built up at the start of the Men’s Elite race, with American Jeremy Powers lining up in the front row next to Van der Haar, but their early sprints couldn’t have been any different. Van der Haar surged forward, taking his customary holeshot. Powers, a seasoned veteran, on the other hand, kept pace with the front group briefly, but was caught pinched in the first corner of the race, costing him a large number of places in the early goings and relinquishing the position that he had worked all season for.
Of all the riders with the worst luck, Jamey Driscoll got boxed in on the pavement and suffered a mechanical in the early chaos, and was forced to run to the pits. Stephen Hyde escaped going down with some impressive bike handling, but suffered two flat tires and did not finish.
It was not long in the first lap when Van der Poel knew that replicating his success at Hoogerheide would mean replicating his early attack. He moved out to the lead position, and all of the other riders at the front did the best they could to stay with him. When the field wound its way to the barriers for the first time, Van der Poel nearly crashed when hopping the barriers, but managed to stay on his bike as Van Aert ran behind and Meeusen chased the two down.
Powers, Jonathan Page and Zach McDonald were replicating their performance at Nationals in Austin as they all raced in close proximity to one another in the early laps of the race, close to the top 20.
The four riders lead the rest of the field on the pavement: Van der Poel, Meeusen, Pauwels and Van Aert. Van Aert went into the corner second, but slipped and dropped his chain from his single ring setup, costing him two places. This would be the first mishap of the young Belgian’s ride. He would drop his chain a second time on the course, and flat one of his tubulars. Later, when he aggressively attempted to bridge back to the leaders mid-way through the race, he steered completely with his handlebars instead of leaning his bike on a descent, causing him to crash. While he popped back up immediately, he looked a little sore as he remounted.
French rider and fast starter Francis Mourey was close to the leaders, and Nys was only two places behind as the leaders came back to the pavement at the end of the first lap.
I knew that in the race [hopping] would make a difference and it did. -Van der Poel
Van der Poel tried pressing the advantage of his young legs once again as he dragged his bike around the corners by the handlebars as he had in several World Cup races this season. He was alone by the time he hit the barriers in the second lap, but after nearly crashing over the first barrier and sloppily dismounting in order to run over the second, the chasers were one again able to chase him down. After nearly crashing in the first two laps attempting to hop the planks, one had to wonder if it was wise to continue pressing his luck.
“In warming up the barriers were very difficult,” Van der Poel recalled. “I knew that in the race [hopping] would make a difference and it did. The first two laps weren’t that great on the barriers, but then I got confidence and I took seconds there every lap.”
Van Aert pressed forward once again, looking as if he wanted to put pressure on his long-time rival, Van der Poel, as soon as possible. The effort looked as if it took a lot out of him, and soon enough, he was backtracking through the field. After Van der Poel finally hit the barriers cleanly and finished the third lap, Van Aert was in sixth and a full 45 seconds back on the leader.
The Veterans Fade
Powers was slowly moving back in the race as he now struggled to hold a top 30 position. Page, on the other hand, was bringing his career experience in Europe to the forefront, and like last year in Hoogerheide, was working his way through the field as the lead American. By the next lap, he would be sitting 22nd overall while Zach McDonald and Stephen Hyde would both be hanging around 40th place after his first flat.
With five laps to go, Pauwels was making headway into Van der Poel’s lead, looking to prove that the young 20-year-old riders were not in charge just yet. Van der Haar tagged along on Pauwels’ wheel as the two of them pressed forward in second and third. Van Aert was able to maintain the lap times of first place Van der Poel, but at 45 seconds back, simply maintaining would not be enough, especially as Pauwels and Van der Haar were gaining ground.
With less than three laps to go, Van der Haar knew he couldn’t be content with sitting on Pauwels’ wheel, and took charge by powering up one of the punchier climbs at Tabor. Pauwels struggled to keep the pace, but it was the young Van Aert who was truly surging forward, moving himself into fourth position and getting within sight of Pauwels.
With two laps to go, Van Aert put himself in the podium position with Pauwels in tow. The World Cup overall leader began burning himself out, and when he reached the stairs, his tired legs slipped on the first step and he came down hard on his leg. It seemed right then that Pauwels’ chances for a podium spot were over.
In the final lap, Van der Poel had made enough headway to play conservatively to the finish line. Van Aert continued to make ground on Van der Haar, and connected in the last third of the final lap.
Van der Poel crossed the finish line, the youngest rider to ever win the Men’s Elite Race. Fifteen seconds back, Van Aert overtook Van der Haar to hit the pavement first, and before the two crossed the finish line for the final sprint, the Dutch rider knew he’d been beaten as he hung his head.