Pre-race favourite Wout Van Aert (Crelan-Vastgoedservice) lived up to expectations and won his first Belgian title in the Elite Men category. Despite a mid-race crash the 21-year-old won on a nearly dry and fast course in his hometown Lille, with a long solo move. He finished well ahead of surprising runner-up Laurens Sweeck (Era Real Estate - Murprotec) and veteran Sven Nys (Crelan-AA Drink).
“I can’t believe it. The whole race I was so focused. The last lap was fantastic. It’s the most beautiful day of my life. The last lap I was completely dead. I’m so happy,” an emotional Van Aert said in the post-race interview with Sporza. “The last lap I had to hold back not to celebrate. When passing the pit I saw my father. It’s been a few rough weeks. It’s a win for my father.”
On the blistering fast course Van Aert always rode attentively inside the top-three. Outsider Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea) continuously marked his wheel. Laurens Sweeck led the opening lap, Michael Vanthourenhout (Marlux-Napoleon Games) the second and Gianni Vermeersch (Marlux-Napoleon Games) the third lap.
During the fourth of ten laps Laurens’ twin brother Diether Sweeck (ERA Real Estate - Murprotec) moved into the lead with Van Aert, Vermeersch, Meeusen, Vanthourenhout, Vincent Baestaens (BKCP-Corendon), Laurens Sweeck and seven other riders including Nys, Kevin Pauwels (Marlux-Napoleon Games) and defending champion Klaas Vantornout (Marlux-Napoleon Games).
Suddenly Van Aert moved into the. Meeusen was glued on his wheel and Vermeersch also passed Diether Sweeck. These three riders gapped the rest of the field and the look on Meeusen’s face showed that he was digging deep.
“I’m not racing for second place at the championships. Before his move I thought he wasn’t good, making small mistakes. Then he accelerated. It was impossible to keep up. He created a small gap and on the road it’s impossible to close that down on him. I briefly profited from Vermeersch and then tried to bridge back up in the forest. Then I blew up,” Meeusen told Sporza.
Halfway through the race seemed decided with an impressive Van Aert destroying the opposition on the course around the lake where he played as a kid. Laurens Sweeck, Meeusen and Vermeersch were the first chasers at twenty seconds. By that time defending champion Vantornout was riding outside the top-10. He would not finish the race.
Meeusen and Vermeersch were unable to keep up with Laurens Sweeck. The latter found a course that suited him perfectly though he was still losing ground on leader Van Aert during the sixth lap.
Pauwels was getting into his rhythm and bridging up towards Sweeck, with Marlux-teammates Vanthourenhout and Vermeersch riding in fourth and fifth place. After the sixth lap Nys was in a group that rode for sixth place at 40 seconds from Van Aert and 15 seconds from Sweeck.
In the balance
On one of the few true muddy sections Van Aert lost his balance in the hidden ruts and he went over the handlebars, and into the barriers. He quickly got back on his feet, ran back to pick up his bike and was lucky enough to find the pit area around the next corner.
Suddenly Laurens Sweeck was back to 15 seconds from the leader with Pauwels right on his tail.
“It was a dangerous section. It went perfectly nine times but one time I landed on my face. I thought it was over,” Van Aert said. During the following lap Sweeck didn’t get any closer and Van Aert got back into his rhythm, increasing his lead back over 20 seconds.
Four riders were battling for the remaining podium spots with Laurens Sweeck leading the way ahead of Pauwels, with Nys and Michael Vanthourenhout closing in fast. Vermeersch lost contact and crashed hard shortly afterwards, possibly fracturing his collarbone. Teammate Pauwels was also confronted with the treacherous course, bumping hard into the corner of a barrier with his hip. Pauwels sat up and needed half a lap to recover. It left three riders battling for second and third place. Just as Nys and Vanthourenhout were about to bridge up with Laurens Sweeck 39-year-old Nys slipped away.
Van Aert ran into a late scare when a fan wanted him to take on a Belgian tricolor flag.
“I didn’t know what he was doing there. I was lucky not to crash when I rode into the flag. I clearly lack experience with this,” Van Aert said.
Before crossing the line he made a bow to his home crowd and threw a fist in the air before landing in the arms of his girlfriend Sarah De Bie. Also Laurens Sweeck was clinching a fist in the air when finishing as runner-up. Nys raised a finger in the air when he was able to shake off Michael Vanthourenhout before reaching the finishing straight. The latter, the U23 world champion, smashed his handlebars in anger.
|#||Rider Name (Country) Team||Result|
|1||Wout Van Aert||1:02:18|
|19||Kenneth Van Compernolle||0:04:11|
|20||Angelo De Clercq||0:04:16|
|25||Dave De Cleyn||0:04:40|
|27||Steven De Decker||0:05:18|
|32||Edwin De Wit|
|35||Bert De Wispelaere|
|36||Tim De Schuyter|
|38||Tom Van Den Bosch|