KOKSIJDE, Belgium (VN) — It was slow and steady for Dutch Junior Mathieu van der Poel — son of 1996 cyclocross World Champion Adri van der Poel — who used a combination of nearly flawless bike handling and carefully measured power in a come-from-behind effort that netted him his first world title and extended the family legacy another generation. Van der Poel, who dominated Junior cyclocross the whole season, lived up to expectations by repeatedly fending off Belgian Wout van Aert, who finished second after leading by as much as 15 seconds early in the race.
After a week of relatively warm, pleasant weather for riders training for the world championships in the dunes here on the North Sea coast, fog rolled in early Saturday morning. Juniors, who kicked off a weekend of championship contests, rolled off the line just as the sun began to break through the low clouds that hung over the polders in this normally quiet corner of Belgium.
Overnight temperatures just above freezing kept the track itself, already lined by fans more than a dozen deep along its most challenging sections, a mix of damp and tacky topsoil and loose, deeply tracked sand. Right away, as expected, the sand was a factor, as a traffic jam, due to a deep hole on the first significant sand passage sprung Van Aert while a group of about eight riders scrambled to catch up.
“The support from the crowds there might even have been a little too motivating,” said the Belgian, who received huge cheers from the partisan fans who lined the course. “I may have overreached a little, but later the cheers helped.”
Indeed, Van Aert proceeded to uncork the fastest lap of the day by nearly 15 seconds, but slowed badly in the second lap of the race, fading to third overall behind France’s Quentin Jauregui and Belgian teammate Daan Soete.
Meanwhile, Van Der Poel was steadily moving up after a slow start. When the leaders briefly sat up on the road at the end of the second lap, Van Der Poel’s chase group connected with the front of the race. Then the Dutch rider simply bided his time until a clever move on a particularly tricky corner in the sand put him in control of the race.
Back on top, the Dutchman showed exactly why he has so dominated the Junior scene this year, methodically eliminating challengers until, after dropping Soete during the fourth of six laps, he was all alone.
“I was thinking back to the World Cup,” Van Der Pole said later, referring to a race he won on the same course in November. “Just like today, I didn’t have a great start there, but then raced my own race. That helped today.”
While Van Der Poel cruised to victory, the Belgians — who eventually would land their entire five-man team in the top eight — battled for second, while Jauregui worked his way around through the bunch, identifiable by his a single red, white, and blue jersey among the crowd of sky-blue Belgians.
Only Van Aert could make any progress towards the leader, pulling clear again with one lap to go, leaving his teammates to sprint, unsuccessfully, for third, which went to Jauregui. But Van Aert’s surge was just a little too late, and by the time he began to gain any ground, Van Der Poel was already on the road, celebrating the first of what could prove to be several world championships.
While TV cameras showed the elder Van Der Poel running to the finish to see his son, the younger buried his face in his hands, overcome by the emotion of the moment.
“Being world champion is an amazing feeling,” the younger Van Der Poel would say in the post-race press conference. “You know,” he told reporters, eyes shining, “my dad had to wait a lot longer than me for his first world championship.”
For the American contingent, results were mixed. Cypress Gorry’s race was over almost before it started. Gorry found himself hung up in a crash just over the start line, and was forced to run for the pit. Though he battled valiantly to recover, the accident cost him nearly three minutes in the first lap.
Top hope for an American podium, Junior national champion Logan Owen, also had a disappointing race. Owen spent most of the day stuck in 14th place, his efforts to move up hampered by collisions out on course. With two laps to go, he found himself side-by-side with teammate Drew Dillman, who was working his way up from behind. The pair worked together to connect with a small group in front of them, but on the final section of sand, Dillman was able to go clear just as another rider fell into Owen.
Dillman rode alone across the line in 14th place, protected from behind by Owen, who took 17th.
“I was doing a lot of the pace making, and Drew would do a lot in the sand,” explained Owen. “Drew got a good gap when I fell, but I was glad I could help him get a good placing. I wish things would have gone better, but I just didn’t have the best of luck today. I’ll be looking for a world championship next year.”
Dillman, meanwhile, was very happy with 14th place. “The last couple of weeks I’ve just been having a hard time like at nationals,” said Dillman on the finish line. “I just wasn’t feeling good. I was shooting for a top ten, top fifteen and to get 14th, I’m really happy with that. I was really proud to hit my goal.”
Americans Curtis White and Tobin Ortenblad finished 34th and 48th, respectively.