A cruel and yet addictive element of sport is wondering what if. As athletes and fans, tormenting ourselves by pondering the hypothetical is an exercise in futility, but it’s also a workout for the muscles of hope.
What if that racer didn’t take me out? What if the ref didn’t blow that foul call? What if my team’s star running back wasn’t injured? What if there weren’t so many flat tires?
Hundreds of world-class cyclocross racers, team mechanics, sponsors, race organizers and a few million cyclocross fans have a full year to contemplate the what ifs of the 2017 Cyclocross World Championships.
After the Elite Men’s race that closed out a spectacular 2017 Cyclocross World Championships, Belgian fans hoping Wout van Aert or another Belgian would claim the 2017 rainbow jersey could count their blessings. On this cloudy, muddy day in Bieles, Luxembourg, the what ifs worked in their favor.
The royal Van der Poel cyclocross family and all the fans of Mathieu weren’t so lucky. For the second straight year, they will have plenty of what ifs to chew on.
A Delayed Duel
The 2016/2017 cyclocross season began with complete Wout van Aert domination. The reigning World Champ dominated CrossVegas despite breaking a toe in the race, and then he rose from his wheelchair to wheel his way around a hot, humid muddy course to take Jingle Cross.
Dutch star and 2015 World Champion Mathieu van der Poel was nowhere to be seen. He made some controversial grumbles about the American World Cups being overly financially burdensome on teams, and suggested the UCI should offer travel assistance.
Meanwhile, he was furiously rehabbing from two more knee surgeries. “What if I never put SPDs on my BMX bike?” Van der Poel might have said to himself while doing rehab to recover from a crash sustained while jumping his play bike. At Interbike, his team coach told Cyclocross Magazine he often wondered the same thing, and then shook his head when further discussing the superstar’s less-than-stellar knees.
Van Aert didn’t publicly revel in his rival’s woes. Instead he broadcast that he welcomed many “beautiful duels” with Van der Poel for the sake of the fans. American fans marveled in Van Aert’s dominance, but were left to wonder what might have happened if Van der Poel was healthy and made the trip.
In Iowa City, David Van der Poel, fresh off a Jingle Cross C1 win, defended his brother’s comments and need to skip the races to rehab. Yet minutes later, David hinted that soon the duels with Van Aert might begin.
“Do you train with your brother?” I asked.
“No, Mathieu’s training way too hard for me right now,” David confessed about his super-motivated, typically higher-ranked younger brother.
Just two weeks later, at the Superpretige Gieten, Mathieu van der Poel made his return and instantly quieted all the doubters while stifling questions about his knee. Instead, it was Van Aert who was left wondering. What if his drivetrain problems continued? What if a healthy Van der Poel was more than he bargained for?
An Undulating, Rock-Filled Level Playing Field
In Bieles, just as it was at the beginning of the season, the beautiful duel was delayed again.
Van Aert and Van der Poel found a frozen, off-camber steep descent-filled cyclocross course without a homecourt advantage. Belgian and Dutch racers and fans had to travel to this “away game.” Even though Van der Poel’s father had a role designing the course, the Luxembourgian terrain and taped turns appeared to offer no advantage to the title favorite early on in the race.
Instead, it was Van der Poel’s fast start and pure power that left Van Aert and the rest of the field gasping for cleaner air, wondering if they already made a mistake in letting the Dutch National Champ have a clear path to sail around the now-waterlogged course.
“At the start I thought it was a race for second place,” Van Aert admitted after the race.
Gamblers satisfied with the short odds of Van der Poel started to count up their winnings with each Van der Poel pedal stroke, as he stretched out his first-lap gap from 5 seconds the second time past the pits to 12 seconds ahead of the chase group, and 15 seconds over Van Aert, with just one lap on the books.
What if Van Aert had a healthy knee? Fans craving a tight, back-and-forth duel wondered, after the defending champ took a week off the bike and said he just started riding offroad on Wednesday.
The Pit of Despair, and Hope
As the course continued to soften, racer’s tracks pushed away mud and exposed rocks, and Van der Poel found himself repeatedly entering the pits for a fresh machine. Each pit exchange cost him time, and gave Van Aert hope. Three flats kept Van der Poel entering for a new bike, but he had good luck in that none of the three punctures were far from the pits, and Van der Poel kept his lead.
All the drivetrain issues and last-lap defeats Van Aert was subject to by Van der Poel’s suspect knees took their toll, but also strengthened his will to play the game out. All that what if wondering would be put to the test today. It was his time to find the answer.
“Last week, I was one week without bike,” Van Aert explained. “It seemed like nobody believed me, it’s not the best preparation of course [but] I wanted to give it full gas for an hour.”
Full gas he gave. Flatting just before the pits, Van Aert swapped his green Michelin Mud Dugast-dressed Felt cyclocross bike for another, committing to the same tire that he finished on behind Van der Poel in Tabor.
Wout Van Aert’s Green Tires: Smart Flat Protection or Good Luck?
With the flat tire out of the way, Van Aert resumed his quest to see if his interrupted preparation and own balky knee would be enough. With each Van der Poel flat-tire induced pit exchange, he inched closer to his rival and to his answer.
“In the second lap I found my rhythm,” he recalled. With the return of his rhythm, other chasers returned to their rightful places. Van Aert moved to the front, passing Corne van Kessel (NED), Tim Merlier (BEL), Michael Vanthourenhout (BEL) and a surprisingly fast-starting Kevin Pauwels (BEL).
For the first time all weekend, the race was dominated by the Belgian versus Dutch teams up front, and turning in the fourth fastest lap of the day, Wout van Aert moved from witness to player.
Fifteen seconds came down to seven with just two of eight laps down, and with another Van der Poel bike exchange, it evaporated to four seconds three laps in. The beautiful duel was back, the what ifs were gone, and it was time for decisiveness, not wondering.
“From my first three punctures I could comeback, and when I was at the wheel of Wout, I got more confident,” Van der Poel said after the race (translated).
Battle for Bronze
With just three laps completed, the other racers and their fans already had their answer: It would be bronze at best.
As Van Aert was nearing contact with his fast-starting rival, the others were fading fast. Pauwels was over 30 seconds back, and dark horse Lars van der Haar was over 45 seconds in arrears. After Pauwels’ brief tandem ride on lap one with Van der Poel, it appeared as if his attempt at early ignition of his patented last-lap matchbook would backfire.
Pauwels was swarmed, falling back to eighth with the race halfway over. Van Kessel, Van der Haar, and even an ill Laurens Sweeck (BEL) left Pauwels to wonder if his rightful last step on the podium was disappearing up the road.
For one podium hopeful, it was game over right from the start. Tom Meeusen was on the shortlist of podium hopefuls, but just off the pavement, the Belgian looked down at his broken Trek Boone and knew his race was over before it began. Sporza reported it broke into two pieces, and video footage shows the Belgian quickly coming to a halt.
“I still wanted to pedal, but my bike was broken so badly that I couldn’t continue. If you walk all the way down to the pit, you maybe lose two minutes,” the Belgian hopeful said (translated).
“I’m really happy to ride here. I’m enjoying cycling again a lot,” Meeusen told Cyclocross Magazine the day before his race, but his untimely mechanical never gave him the chance to race or enjoy the experience. Meeusen can take comfort that he wasn’t the only one to break a bike into two pieces shortly after the start.
Really sad to see @TomMeeusen out just seconds into the race. #cxworlds #bieles2017 pic.twitter.com/pY9r4QR9l5
— Cyclocross Magazine (@cyclocross) January 29, 2017
Anyone hoping there would be a disruption of the Dutch/Belgian stranglehold on the podium had to look far down the course to see the next country in play. Spain’s Ismael Esteban Aguando sat in tenth, Michael Boros (CZE) sat a few spots behind with former U23 Champion Philipp Walsleben of Germany in tow. Meanwhile, Marcel Miesen (GER) and U.S. National Champion Stephen Hyde were doing their best to break into the top 20.
A Two-Lap Highlight
For two glorious laps, fans reveled in the beautiful duel that they became addicted to early on in the season. Visions of a sequel to the two-man duels that played out at Superprestige Gieten, Zonhoven, Diegem, the Valkenburg World Cup and Scheldecross excited even casual fans while the multiple lead changes on laps four and five had racers’ and fans’ hearts racing.
Van Aert looked superior on the zig-zag downhill off-camber descent, and initially it looked like Van der Poel might be resting and studying his rival’s lines and weaknesses, readying for one final cold shoulder or final kick to make his winning move. Soon Van der Poel attacked the climbs and flyovers to regain control, and when Van Aert finally went in for a bike swap, Van der Poel took his turn to hit the front, pumping up the Dutch fans and distancing Van Aert once more.
A Collective Sigh
Crossing the line with three to go, the pair was back together, and fans everywhere let out a huge sigh, just as Van der Poel’s rear tire had done thirty seconds earlier.
Van der Poel stared down at his bike to confirm.
Flat rear tire.
Van Aert seized his opportunity, setting off to record the two fastest laps of the day, while Van der Poel lost twenty seconds while riding the rim. Van Aert was suddenly pumped up by his good fortune and his rival’s misfortune.
Van der Poel, despite his father shouting encouragement from the pits, looked deflated, riding without his usual aggression as he attempted to bring back the Belgian. Hairpin turns that he slid through before became forced dismounts. He didn’t give in, turning his second-best lap time on the penultimate lap, but it wouldn’t be enough—it was still 10 seconds slower than Van Aert—and dreams of reclaiming the rainbow jersey transformed over the final lap into what if wonderings.
“The last puncture happened too far from the pits,” Van der Poel said. “It took a lot of time and strength to get the exchange.”
Flat tires and disappointment are part of cyclocross, as is Kevin Pauwels claiming sloppy seconds behind the dominant duo. Despite his fast start, Pauwels kept some matches in reserve, and somehow turned in the fastest final lap of anyone to lock up the final medal. Pauwels’ final lap was a whopping 45 seconds faster than a front flat tire-nursing Lars van der Haar, and a hair faster than the leading two.
Pauwels’ strong finish cemented a Belgian 1-3, redemption for being shut out from the medals earlier in the day when the Dutch won gold and bronze in the U23 race.
Americans Face Mixed Fortunes
Stephen Hyde had good legs on the day, but suffered from the same luck as Van der Poel, suffering no less than four flats. The National Champion would climb as high as 15th before finishing in 18th after his final puncture.
“I was really shooting for that 10th-15th spot and I was riding there and I felt the fitness is there …but four flats…” Hyde told Cyclocross Magazine. “I feel good, I feel great. I’m ending the season on a high note. I’ve kinda scraped off all my checkpoints this year and everything I wanted to do. I won Contis and I won Nationals…and I’m super stoked.”
Jeremy Durrin also suffered four flats in his “anti-climactic” ride, while Kerry Werner took some bittersweet pride in knowing he had “only one” flat on his way to 33rd, winning the Team USA title for the least number of flats.
Werner kept the race in perspective, telling Cyclocross Magazine, “This was also my first trip over to Europe for ’cross so I was just kind of going into it with eyes wide open trying to take it all in. One thing I’ve learned is that the Euros definitely start harder than us but the biggest thing I noticed is that they never slow down.”
See Team USA’s post-race reactions and interviews with Travis Livermon, Jack Kisseberth, Durrin, Hyde and Werner here:
USA Elite Men Post-Race Interviews: Stephen Hyde, Kerry Werner, Travis Livermon, Jeremy Durrin, Jack Kisseberth
Dueling Emotions Take Over
“I felt physically ready to win,” said Van der Poel, clearly distraught. “It’s not nice to lose by bad luck. This is my biggest disappointment so far.”
While Van der Poel’s tears of disappointment flowed freely on the podium, Van Aert was in disbelief.
“I really didn’t expect this,” he said after his win. “Mentally I had to face a lot in the last week, it’s not easy to keep my focus on the race. I’m really proud of it…”
Van Aert also knew he had good fortune at his rival’s expense.
“It’s a pity that bad luck is with Mathieu…of course I couldn’t wait for him. I was lucky that Mathieu had a flat tire near the finish line…it’s a long way to the pit,” he admitted.
There are three medals but of course only one jersey given out on the podium. Wout van Aert kept what was already his for another year, while both riders left Bieles with medal and a year’s supply of what ifs.
Van Aert, the winner on the day, got to pick first, grabbing a sweet haul to add to the joy of the day.
Van der Poel took what was left—and it came with a bitter taste that won’t go away anytime soon.
Stay tuned to the ever-growing 2017 Cyclocross World Championships coverage on our Worlds page here for more photos, video interviews and bike profiles from Bieles, Luxembourg. Watch or rewatch the racing from Saturday or Sunday’s races on our site here.
2017 Cyclocross World Championships Results - Elite Men - Bieles, Luxemourg
|1||VAN AERT Wout||BEL||VERANDA'S WILLEMS - CRELAN||1:02:08|
|2||VAN DER POEL Mathieu||NED||BEOBANK - CORENDON||+00:44|
|3||PAUWELS Kevin||BEL||MARLUX NAPOLEON GAMES||+02:09|
|4||VAN DER HAAR Lars||NED||TELENET FIDEA LIONS||+02:52|
|5||VAN KESSEL Corne||NED||TELENET FIDEA LIONS||+03:09|
|6||SWEECK Laurens||BEL||ERA - CIRCUS||+03:29|
|7||BOROS Michael||CZE||PAUWELS SAUZEN - VASTGOEDSERVICE CONTINENTAL TEAM||+03:47|
|11||NESVADBA Jan||CZE||EXPRES CZ-MERIDA TEAM KOLIN||+04:50|
|12||MERLIER Tim||BEL||VERANDA'S WILLEMS - CRELAN||+05:07|
|13||WALSLEBEN Philipp||GER||BEOBANK - CORENDON||+05:07|
|16||RUIZ DE LARRINAGA IBANEZ Javier||ESP||+05:35|
|17||VANTHOURENHOUT Michael||BEL||MARLUX NAPOLEON GAMES||+05:40|
|19||TARAMARCAZ Julien||SUI||ERA - CIRCUS||+05:57|
|24||WILDHABER Marcel||SUI||SCOTT-ODLO MTB RACING TEAM||+06:29|
|27||ESTEBAN AGUANDO Ismael||ESP||+07:03|
|28||HARING Martin||SVK||DUKLA BANSKA BYSTRICA||+07:18|
|29||VENTURINI Clement||FRA||COFIDIS, SOLUTIONS CREDITS||+07:38|
|30||VAN DER POEL David||NED||BEOBANK - CORENDON||-2LAP|
|31||MOUREY Francis||FRA||FORTUNEO - VITAL CONCEPT||-2LAP|
|34||GODRIE Stan||NED||VERANDA'S WILLEMS - CRELAN||-2LAP|
|38||VAN DEN HAM Michael||CAN||-2LAP|
|43||SUAREZ FERNANDEZ Kevin||ESP||-3LAP|
|44||BOOM Lars||NED||TEAM LOTTO NL - JUMBO||-3LAP|
|48||HERNANDEZ GUTIERREZ Aitor||ESP||-3LAP|
|58||SCHLECHTER Pit||LUX||LEOPARD PRO CYCLING||-4LAP|
|MEEUSEN Tom||BEL||TELENET FIDEA LIONS||DNF1|