Wout Van Aert (Belgium) made it a historic triple at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships, winning the elite men's race in Valkenburg, Holland. The Belgian was the dominate rider through the race, dropping his main rival, Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands), in the opening two laps before extending his lead throughout the race. The win marks Van Aert's third straight elite world title and completed a dominant weekend for Belgium after Sanne Cant won the elite women's race.
While Van Aert looked relatively comfortable in the muddy conditions the same could not be said for the 2015 champion and this year's World Cup winner, van der Poel. The Dutch rider was caught by Michael Vanthourenhout (Belgium) shortly after Van Aert pushed clear and eventually struggled to hold second place in the race. Vanthourenhout eventually finished second with a disconsolate van der Poel in third. Toon Aerts (Belgium) finished fourth.
"I didn't expect this," said Van Aert, who has watched as van der Poel won countless races throughout this season. "I think it was one of the best races in my life on a bike. The running went so good. I can't believe it that a race went like that. I expected a big battle but this was nice of course."
The 23-year-old Belgian rider dominated from start to finish on the muddy slopes of the Cauberg and relegated the rest of the field, finishing more than two minutes ahead of the surprising runner-up, 24-year-old Vanthourenhout.
Pre-race favourite, van der Poel - who dominated the cyclo-cross season with 26 victories - only managed to lead the race for a brief moment during the opening lap.
Van Aert crossed the line while standing up straight on his pedals with his arms in the air, raising three fingers. "It's the third consecutive world title for me. I think it's pretty historical to do that in cyclo-cross. The names who did that before me were icons of this sport. It means a lot to come in this select group of people. I worked really hard for this. Now it's time to enjoy it," Van Aert said.
Zdenek Stybar, Erwin Vervecken and Mario De Clercq captured three world titles.
During the build-up to the race, Van der Poel was the clear top favourite with defending champion Van Aert being the sole challenger. Last year in Bieles (Luxembourg), van der Poel was comfortably leading the world-title race when four punctures took him out of contention for the rainbow jersey. This season he entered the World Championships with a massive 26 wins.
Still, the World Championships race is a one-day race where anything can happen. For example, cyclo-cross icon Sven Nys dominated the sport for over a decade and only won the world title twice.
Van Aert had a solid start and had teammate and compatriot Tim Merlier paving the way in front. When van der Poel suddenly surged forward the duo kept swarming around him. In the long technical descent tactics were futile and Van der Poel created a small gap. Van Aert managed to close it quickly and on the long steep run-up he charged passed the Dutch ace, with Michael Vanthourenhout surprisingly standing tall just behind the two protagonists.
Van Aert and van der Poel passed the finish line after the opening lap with a small lead of six seconds on Vanthourenhout. Aerts led the rest of the field at 21 seconds. From there, Van Aert took the initiative and Van der Poel started to struggle.
"In the second lap I felt strong," Van Aert said. "In the beginning it was a big challenge to follow Mathieu. I knew that the most difficult part for me was following him in the first lap. After that I knew I had a chance in the second lap. Immediately I had a nice gap. I was in a rhythm I could hold on for the rest of the race."
First, van der Poel rode into a pole in the long descent but he recovered. Later, he stood sideways in the deep mud and Van Aert was gone. In no time, the gap grew up to 20 seconds and Vanthourenhout bridged back up to Van der Poel. It was a mental blow for the pre-race favourite.
"I didn't make many mistakes. Wout was far above the others today. Mentally it's very difficult to come here with the goal of becoming world champion and in the second lap you already realize that it's not going to happen. It was mentally hard. The crowd - which was a real good crowd - pulled me through the difficult moments today,” Van der Poel told Sporza.
Van Aert seemed unphased by the difficult racing conditions, riding and running at a blistering pace through the mud. His lead quickly grew, clocking lap times that were about half a minute faster than the first chasers.
Halfway into the race, even bad luck wouldn't have kept the Belgian rider from the victory. Van Aert was leading van der Poel and Vanthourenhout with a bonus of 1:30. Aerts was fourth at two minutes and the rest of the field was three minutes down. Van Aert was asked how it was possible to stay focused and keep up that high rhythm. "I'm the kind of rider, when I'm alone in the front, mentally I get everything in a good order.
"I can go over the limit for one hour. That happens. It's the World Championships. You don't want to take the risk to slow down the pace. I just gave everything until I was on the bridge in the last lap. I was completely dead," Van Aert said.
He did make one mistake during the fifth of seven laps, going over the handlebars and landed somewhat softly in the mud. "I made a mistake in the lowest part of the course. Afterwards I was a little bit out of my rhythm for half a lap. It was difficult because I knew it was more than two laps, still more than 20 minutes in the race. I tried to focus again and I came back in a good pace. I think on this course it was impossible to stay without mistakes. Also for me it happens," Van Aert said.
Van Aert kept expanding his lead and brought the commanding victory home. Vanthourenhout celebrated his second place at 2:13 as if it was a victory.
"I didn't expect the second place. It was a surprise to be up there with the firsts in the opening lap. It was important to follow those two. When I bridged up with Mathieu I knew that he wasn't super and something was possible," Vanthourenhout told Sporza.
Van der Poel was caught back by Aerts in the penultimate lap but managed to fight back and get third place at 2:30. "I couldn't allow it to happen that I wouldn't crack the podium here in Valkenburg. I had to go deep to get that bronze medal. I made the mistake before to let go of the podium and I'm not going to make that mistake again," Van der Poel told Sporza.
Aerts finished fourth at 3:16. "It's a bit sad. I tried to give Mathieu a mental blow by attacking him straight away when I caught him but he bounced back. Then I rode a poor descent and it was over," Aerts told Sporza.
Lars van der Haar (Netherlands) rode a surprisingly strong race and finished fifth at 4:29, ahead of an strong Gioele Bertolini (Italy). Belgians Merlier, Laurens Sweeck and Daan Soete picked up spots 7th to 9th and French champion Steve Chainel captured a strong 10th place at 5:51.
Only 22 riders of the 57 starters finished in the lead lap, showing what a blistering pace Van Aert was riding around in Valkenburg.
|#||Rider Name (Country) Team||Result|
|1||Wout Van Aert (Belgium)||1:09:00|
|2||Michael Vanthourenhout (Belgium)||0:02:13|
|3||Mathieu Van Der Poel (Netherlands)||0:02:30|
|4||Toon Aerts (Belgium)||0:03:16|
|5||Lars Van Der Haar (Netherlands)||0:04:29|
|6||Gioele Bertolini (Italy)||0:04:42|
|7||Tim Merlier (Belgium)||0:04:56|
|8||Laurens Sweeck (Belgium)||0:05:21|
|9||Daan Soete (Belgium)||0:05:30|
|10||Steve Chainel (France)||0:05:51|
|11||Quinten Hermans (Belgium)||0:05:58|
|12||Michael Boroš (Czech Republic)||0:06:16|
|13||Francis Mourey (France)||0:06:27|
|14||Marcel Meisen (Germany)||0:06:44|
|15||Stephen Hyde (United States of America)||0:06:53|
|16||Marcel Wildhaber (Switzerland)||0:07:06|
|17||David Van Der Poel (Netherlands)||0:07:16|
|18||Jan Nesvadba (Czech Republic)||0:07:28|
|19||Lars Forster (Switzerland)||0:07:41|
|20||Felipe Orts Lloret (Spain)||0:08:06|
|21||Simon Zahner (Switzerland)||0:08:31|
|22||Stan Godrie (Netherlands)||0:09:05|
|23||Matthieu Boulo (France)|
|24||Severin Sägesser (Switzerland)|
|25||Ismael Esteban Aguero (Spain)|
|26||Corne Van Kessel (Netherlands)|
|27||Tomáš Paprstka (Czech Republic)|
|28||Kerry Werner (United States of America)|
|29||Marco Aurelio Fontana (Italy)|
|30||Daniele Braidot (Italy)|
|31||Fabien Canal (France)|
|32||Martin Haring (Slovakia)|
|33||Ian Field (Great Britain)|
|34||Michael Van Den Ham (Canada)|
|35||Javier Ruiz De Larrinaga Ibañez (Spain)|
|36||Garry Millburn (Australia)|
|37||Kenneth Hansen (Denmark)|
|38||Cody Kaiser (United States of America)|
|39||Sascha Weber (Germany)|
|40||Jack Kisseberth (United States of America)|
|41||Martin Eriksson (Sweden)|
|42||Tobin Ortenblad (United States of America)|
|43||Scott Thiltges (Luxembourg)|
|44||Tristan Cowie (United States of America)|
|45||Aitor Hernandez Gutierrez (Spain)|
|46||Ondrej Glajza (Slovakia)|
|47||Gusty Bausch (Luxembourg)|
|48||Jeremy Powers (United States of America)|
|49||Emil Hekele (Czech Republic)|
|50||Manuel Müller (Germany)|
|51||Mark Mcconnell (Canada)|
|52||Vincent Dias Dos Santos (Luxembourg)|
|53||Hikaru Kosaka (Japan)|
|54||Yu Takenouchi (Japan)|
|55||Glenn Kinning (Ireland)|
|56||Ingvar Omarsson (Israel)|
|DNF||Luca Braidot (Italy)|