With sprint finishes in both of the European races last weekend there was no lack of drama for ‘cross fans, even if the two races couldn’t have been more different in style and tactics. The first ever World Cup in the UK, in Milton Keynes on Saturday, was everything it promised. UK fans continued to impress the world as they did for the Tour and the Olympics, showing up in huge numbers to watch a heavy, hilly, off-camber race that was an instant classic. Sunday’s BPost Bank Trofee in Hamme was more like a criterium in contrast; just wet enough to pack the track down and provide a little extra grip, with almost 20 riders still connected to the front group as late as 1 lap to go.
With fast conditions like that at the Flandriencross, without question, the favorite was Tom Meeusen. Drafting, driving, and sprinting out of every turn are his specialties, and with his recent good results on courses that don’t suit him, one had to expect him to be racing for the win on a course that did. The wildcards here were the U23s Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, racing with the pros on fresh legs and no travel after skipping the World Cup the day before.
The impact of the young riders on the race was evident before the field even hit the first corner. Almost every start this season has been won by Lars van der Haar or Meeusen. As expected, they were set up to go 1-2 off the pavement until Van Aert dove over the top of them to take the hole shot, with Kevin Pauwels on his wheel. Punchy kids with no patience, perhaps, but there’s something to be said for no fear and no limits, too. Van Aert led for the entire first lap and didn’t pause until the pavement again, with eight riders on his wheel. All the favorites where there, excluding Philipp Walsleben who needed a few laps to connect, and including a surprising Sven Vanthourenhout, who excels on kermis-style courses.
Van Aert didn’t leave the front until he was forced to by his own mistake, sliding out in a turn part way into lap two, but remounting in time to stay connected to the group. With Van Aert’s pressure off, Meussen was almost gifted the time bonus sprint a few moment later (though Nys was sure to slide in for third, gaining five seconds on GC and one point in the sprint competition.) After the sprint, Meeusen and Pauwels only went as hard as they had to at the front, and the group grew to 20 riders.
Tactics start to factor
At the start of lap two, Vanthourenhout made a brief appearance at the front, perhaps to control the group for Nys as he used to. Van der Poel immediately responded with an acceleration, marked and matched by Meeusen, and stretching the group thin. It was much, much too early for a move like that on a course with so much drafting, however. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, and as they hit the pavement at the end of lap three, Van der Poel still had 14 riders on his wheel, and one less match to work with later. Amusingly, it was Van Aert who took over at the front as Van der Poel drifted back in the group, a battle of egos and watts apparently already in play.
It wasn’t until the end of the lap four with six laps to go that the first notable selection of the day was made. Van der Haar had driven the previous half lap, splitting the field and there was no pause and regrouping on the pavement as there had been on previous laps. As they hit the line, Van der Haar towed a group five seconds clear including Van Aert, Meeusen and Nys, with teammates Pauwels and Vantornout chasing.
While Pauwels welded, Jens Adams and Van der Poel were able to follow and eventually bridge as well. The acceleration, chase, and regrouping set up the first big attack of the day, launched by Van Aert’s teammate Jens Adams a lap later. This time the group stalled as riders recovered on the pavement, but Adams countered like he was attacking for a prime. Van Aert stopped pedaling, Van der Haar looked at Nys, and Nys, of course, kept riding his own comfortable pace, refusing at first to be drawn in.
After a few moments, Nys didn’t so much start chasing as he simply continued to ride steady, knowing that he didn’t immediately need to bring a single rider back with 10 riders on his wheel and 30 minutes left to race. Van Aert played the perfect teammate as they approached the barriers and subsequent s-turns, passing Nys, sitting up and soft pedaling, opening up the gap, and interrupting Nys' chase. Nys went back to the front and held the gap steady at 10 seconds with four laps to go, with Meeusen, Van der Haar, Adams, Van der Poel, and a surprising Vanthourenhout all following. A few seconds behind them, Walsleben was stuck closing gaps again, with Pauwels and seven others on his wheel
Finally, after more than a lap of chasing by Nys, it was Meeusen who panicked, accelerated, and fully closed the gap to Adams. Van Aert took over but only rode tempo as the group recovered, with Van der Haar eventually replacing him at that front with three to go and allowing the group to settle with 13 riders all thinking about the finish. As the group paused, Adams went back to the front, and Walsleben finally moved up into the top five after yo-yoing all day. The group was up to 16 riders, and this was clearly the calm before the storm.
It was at that moment, with about two and a half laps to go, that the final moves began, intentionally and unintentionally. In a series of s-turns, Meeusen slipped and dabbed a foot while following Adams. Van Aert managed to slide between them and sit up through the next turn as Adams sprinted away. It was subtle, intentional, and brilliant racing by Van Aert. He initially started to follow Adams, changed his mind when he saw he had the group on his wheel, and let the gap go. Van der Haar figured things out quickly enough, forced his way around Van Aert and started the chase, but this was exactly what Van Aert was looking for.
At two to go, Van Aert sat comfortably on Van der Haar’s wheel on the pavement, at least until Walsleben countered as they went back into the woods. Initially, it looked like Wasleben might be chasing for his teammate Van der Poel as he once did for Niels Albert. Instead, he managed to create a gap on the group that Van der Poel himself impatiently and foolishly closed himself, again giving something away to Van Aert and the rest of the chasers.
As they approached the pits with one and a half laps to go, Adams was caught and Walsleben attacked again. Adams tried desperately to follow (with Van der Poel and Van Aert on his wheel) but slipped out in exactly the same spot as Meeusen the lap before, with exactly the same effect; Walsleben was gone, and this time Van der Poel had the good sense to sit up in the turn and open the gap further. Meeusen saw it happening, recognized the crucial moment, moved up in the group to start the chase but slid out instead. While the track was concrete in the single file lane in the center, it was still wet cement at the edges. Passing in a bad spot put Meeusen on the ground and out of the running for the win. All the while, Van der Poel crawled along with the field stuck behind him.
As they hit the pavement for the last time, Adams was finally able to move around Van der Poel and buried it for Van Aert. Van Aert took over with Van der Poel following, seven seconds behind Walsleben. At that point, things looked brilliant for BKCP; Walsleben was on his way to a solo victory, Van Aert had to finish the chase if he wanted to win, Van der Poel could sit on as he did, and anyone not attached to the train was going to have to use their last legs to close a gap to a full-flight Van Aert. Not an easy task.
Last lap and critical errors
As Van Aert chased, only Van der Poel could follow. Adams was gapped and the field was gapped with him, though Van der Haar tried to respond. As they passed the barriers for the last time, however, Van der Poel’s impatience got the best of him again. Van Aert dismounted for the barriers while Van der Poel hopped them, allowing Van der Poel to move in front. Instead of backing off in the subsequent turns, Van der Poel took it upon himself to chase and close the gap to his teammate rather than continuing to let Van Aert do the work.
This was the beginning of the end for Van der Poel, putting him in the wind and leveling his effort with Van Aert’s, rather than continuing to exploit the fact that he had a teammate Van Aert was tactically forced to chase. At this point, Van der Poel had made a commitment and had to follow through. He caught Walsleben and accelerated again, while Van Aert was only slightly held up by Walsleben on the way by. Once Van der Poel realized he hadn’t managed to go clear, however, he sat up, ultimately gaining nothing on Van Aert, but spending quite a lot on the effort.
In the last half lap, the race changed from one of attacking for a gap, to one where the goal was simply to lead and control. Every turn was an opportunity to crash, and each rider wanted to be the one in front regardless of who did the crashing. Van Aert and Van der Poel sprinted for the entrance to every turn, while Walsleben tail-gunned behind, holding on for a hopeful third place and maybe a mistake to exploit if given the chance.
Both Van Aert and Van der Poel knew that the second to last corner on to the pavement was preceded by a short, steep ditch exit that many riders were stalling out on during the race. Both wanted to be first, and both knew that whoever lead would likely pause slightly longer than necessary in that spot, potentially forcing the other to dab. Van der Poel won the race to the turn, and as expected, took his time up the hill and into the corner. Interestingly, Van Aert chose to follow the wheel closely, rather than anticipate the set up from Van der Poel. As a result, he was forced to clip out and put a foot down while Van der Poel sprinted away. For a moment it looked, despite his many tactical errors through the race, that Van der Poel’s last move was going to be the one that worked as expected.
Alas, all those matches spent by Van der Poel over the course of the race while Van Aert was playing it cool would finally show up as the difference in the last few hundred meters. Van Aert clipped in quickly, switched to his drops as they went through the last turn, and ran Van der Poel down. Van Aert was fully committed to the sprint while Van der Poel was still on his hoods and looking behind him with 100 meters to go.
While it may have looked like Van der Poel lost in that moment, it was, in fact, one of many such moments throughout the race where Van Aert simply made better, more thoughtful, and more patient choices than Van der Poel, and in the process put him two for two against his U23 rival. For Nys, winning the sprint for fourth, eight seconds behind, was perfect, and kept him in the lead for the BPost general classification over Pauwels.