It took just two minutes for Mathieu van der Poel to make his move and confirm what most fans and his competitors were expecting.
With just a few pedal strokes, the Dutch star and dominant rider of the season showed that he could ride sections that others were stumbling on and surged from eighth to third. In the process, he got by a fast-starting U.S. National Champion Stephen Hyde, and Belgians Michael Vanthourenhout, Laurens Sweeck, and Wout van Aert.
Thirty seconds later he was at the front, passing teammate Lars van der Haar and then Tim Merlier, pushing the pace, shredding the publicly-announced Belgian team plan of "anything to stop Van der Poel from riding solo early" and putting panic into his rivals.
Belgian Merlier tried to hang on and tow team leader Van Aert back up to the Dutchman’s wheel.
Most fans were ready to just waiting for the inevitable complete escape. Even 85% of fantasy players were expecting Van der Poel to maintain a lead until the finish.
Van Aert wasn’t surprised to be already chasing. "I knew before the race that would be the most difficult part for me…following [Van der Poel] in the first lap," he said.
No Beautiful Duel
Last season, week after week we were treated to "beautiful duels" between the two male stars of cyclocross. This season, not so much. Van der Poel was dominant from the beginning.
For a total of 12 minutes and 30 seconds, it looked like today might be different, and fans might be treated to yet another two-racer battle that we saw last season, or witnessed yesterday in the women’s race.
After Van der Poel’s aggressive move to the front, Merlier was dropped but Van Aert held on. Although the two-time defending World Champ only gave himself a 25% chance of winning, he also made public statements expressing confidence he could win, and was there to find out.
With just one lap down, it was the top two again. Van der Poel content to follow his rival, and perhaps studying his weaknesses and biding time until an attack.
"I expected a big battle," Van Aert admitted.
Van Aert was not going to wait for the attack. He ran the hills with confidence, while Van der Poel had multiple small slips, making it look like he needed toe spikes.
More Than Just Two
Behind the two superstars, racers were lining up for their chance at a medal, with Michael Vanthourenhout leading the mostly-Belgian and Dutch chase after lap one, just six seconds back of the leading pair. Toon Aerts followed next, at 21 seconds, with France’s Steve Chainel and Italy’s Gioele Bertolini squeezing in the top 10.
Hyde had fallen outside the top ten after his stellar start due to a dropped chain, but came through in 16th.
Two Bobbles Break the Tie
In six World Championships against each other prior to Valkenburg, Van der Poel has taken three titles (2012, 2013, 2015), and Van Aert three (2014, 2016, 2017).
In Valkenburg, unless upset by a darkhorse, one of them seemed destined to break the tie.
On lap two, 13 minutes into the race, on the same left-hand rutted turn on the descent that tripped up Thomas Pidcock in the U23 race, Van der Poel hit the fencing while following Van Aert.
He didn’t lay it down, but doubled over on the fencing, and the hang-up gave Van Aert a few bike lengths gap.
Suddenly, Van der Poel was on the defensive.
Less than a minute later, he dabbed on a sharp hairpin turn, while Van Aert rode it cleanly.
Those two bobbles were all Van Aert needed.
He was clear of his rival, and off to the races.
After sharing the lead with Van der Poel for one lap, an unimpeded Van Aert set off to power through the fastest lap times for each of the next five laps.
After lap two, the gap to the Van der Poel and Vanthourenhout was 25 seconds, and a lap later, it was 1:06.
Van Aert extinguished any hope by his chasers on lap 4, putting in over 40 seconds on the chasing duo, and 2 minutes or more on many, effectively ending the day of half the field, including every American but Hyde and Werner.
The Belgian plan was back on, and working like a charm. "Mathieu is used to taking a gap in the beginning of the race, and he's not used to chasing someone," Van Aert explained. "I was able to get a gap on him in the second lap and make it difficult for him to stay focused. That was a good thing for me."
Van Aert would be the only racer to post sub-10-minute lap times on laps 3, 4, 5, 6 as he worked through lapped traffic and started thinking about what club he might take his title celebration to.
A Three-Way Fight for Silver and Bronze
With Van Aert gone, Vanthourenhout was free to ride for silver, and on lap five, took his chance by riding an incline that Van der Poel surprisingly had to dismount and run.
Van der Poel was broken, and Vanthourenhout turned it into a silver opportunity. He was clear of the Dutchman, but was the Dutchman clear to claim even the bronze?
Behind him, yet another Belgian, Toon Aerts was on the move and would catch Van der Poel with just one lap to go and start the dreams of a Belgian sweep.
Somehow, on the final lap, Van der Poel found his legs, only one hour too late. With the fastest final lap of the day, Van der Poel shed Aerts, gave Vanthourenhout a scare, and awarded home fans a bit of joy seeing their fallen hero take the final step of the podium.
Just One Race, But Three for History
Despite the shocking (for most) result, the racers tried to put it into perspective.
Van der Poel admitted defeat, but not error:
While Vannthourenhout wasn't maintaining he was second best of the season, or better than Van der Poel:
Even Van Aert admitted it was just one day, but a very special day. "I didn't expect this," he said. "I think it was one of the best days of my life on a bike. The running went was good. I can’t believe the race went like this."
"After the season I had nothing to lose. I already have two rainbow jerseys in my closet. It gave me a really relaxed feeling going into this race. Mathieu was dominating the whole season, so he was the big favorite, and he deserved this title the most. But the championship isn't about who deserves it for the season, it's just a one-day race. It's always difficult to focus for a one-day race and have things come together for this one hour. It's not easy, but it worked out today."
"Mathieu was dominating the whole season, so he was the big favorite, and he deserved this title the most. But the championship isn't about who deserves it for the season, it's just a one-day race." -Van Aert
The one day was also a special one because it gave Van Aert a ticket into a special club that just a few others have enjoyed entry into: three consecutive cyclocross world titles.
"It’s the third consecutive title for me. It’s pretty historical to do that in cyclocross, and the names who did that before me were icons of this sport, so it means a lot to join this group of people," Van Aert said.
He joins legends like Vos, Liboton, Zweifel, De Vlaeminck and Roland today with his third straight rainbow jersey. That's quite a select guest list.
- The podium was a repeat of four years ago, in Hoogerheide, the last time both Van Aert and Van der Poel raced U23:
- American Hyde finished in 15th and attempted to describe the day:
- Werner finished in 28th, Canadian Michael van den Ham finished in 34th, and Australian Garry Millburn finished in 36th. two laps short of the seven-lap race. Cody Kaiser (38th), Jack Kisseberth (40th), Tobin Ortenblad (42nd) and Jeremy Powers (48th) and Mark McConnell in (51st) all had one lap less of the muddy, heavy course.
- Frances Mourey (37 years old) and Steve Chainel (34 years old), both familiar faces due to their stints racing in America, were a veteran presence in an otherwise young top 20, finishing 13th and 10th, respectively.
- Van Aert seemed to address the controversy of leaving the veteran Kevin Pauwels off the team, saying, "It's cool to hear my teammates were confident in me. I can only tell you the whole national team was really cool and relaxed. It was the first time we had this kind of selection on the national team. It was a very young group. We know each other from the youth categories and were on the same page."
Full results below the photo gallery.