HAMME-ZOGGE, Belgium (VN) – For anyone accustomed to the remarkable contrast so common in European races — blistering, aggressive races decided by surprisingly blasé finishes — the image must have made an imprint.
Here is Niels Albert, who overcame a disastrous start and technical problems on Sunday to lay down a searing surge to shed young Lars Van Der Haar and lock up a third second-place finish in as many races in the Hansgrohe Superprestige Series: rolling to the line, soft-pedaling and acknowledging the crowd. Albert has made his statement; he is the one in rainbow stripes and he is the one who can unleash the lightning explosion, leaving you behind him as in one of those nightmares where no matter how hard you try, all you can do is spin your wheels fruitlessly.
But then a murmur from the crowd and suddenly he appears, legs churning furiously, closing the gap — exponentially almost — in a blur of orange and blue. Albert glances back, incredulous, recognizing the threat, and abandons the ceremonial finish for something more like the real deal.
This is Lars Van Der Haar, and he wants everyone to know, as long as he’s in the race, it’s not over until you’re safely across the white line.
“In Belgium,” he says, “sometimes they don’t ride all the way to the finish line. I kind of want to break that tradition. With me, you have to ride all the way to the line.”
Van Der Haar and his smart, punchy racing style aren’t exactly a surprise to anyone who has been following under-23 cyclocross in recent years. A two-time U23 world champion, the 21-year-old Dutchman won 16 races last year, including a sneaky sprint win as an elite at CrossVegas.
Nonetheless, his success as a true elite — despite being the youngest rider in almost every race he starts — is turning heads. He scored a second place in the Tabor World Cup in October and earned his second podium finish on Sunday at Hamme-Zogge.
After nearly being pipped for second place today, Albert told reporters that Van Der Haar was his pick for the favorite for the world championship in Louisville in February.
Nonetheless, the levelheaded Van Der Haar remains focused on his immediate, and more modest, aspirations.
“I’m just going to keep the goals [I started the season with],” he told VeloNews Sunday. “That’s just trying for a top 10 in all the races, and then look for a few gems in the top five, and this is a top three, so that’s one of them. I’d really like to win one race; that’s my goal.”
The fact that his goal, in his first year racing as an elite, is realistic is testament to both his natural talent and his future potential, especially when you consider that he has only been riding bikes for 10 years. By contrast, Sven Nys won his first Belgian title in 2000, when Van Der Haar was 10 years old and thinking about becoming a gymnast.
An Achilles-tendon injury ended Van Der Haar’s gymnastics hopes, and the bike provided solace following the death of his sister from cancer at the end of 2002. By the end of his second season he was on the podium on the Netherlands national championship.
Still, competing among his own onetime role models, and carrying the hopes of a nation’s return to the fore of men’s cyclocross, Van Der Haar says he feels no pressure to perform.
“I don’t think there’s any extra pressure, no,” he explains. “I put the pressure on myself a lot, but, when you do hear the crowd going crazy and you’re there it’s really nice. So I try to do it for them as well, but really just for myself.”
And though his nationality and his rapid rise make comparisons to another Dutch rider who won a world championship in his first year as an elite at age 22 — Lars Boom — almost inevitable, he says that while he admires Boom, he see’s no parallel in his own trajectory. Boom, much to the consternation of Dutch fans who saw him as a great hope to restore balance in a sport that has skewed heavily towards Belgium among the men, left cyclocross for a highly successful career on the road.
“I’m a cyclocross rider traditionally, so I didn’t really want to go race on the road,” says Van Der Haar. “I like this a lot. And some of the other Dutch riders were really good on the road. I’m okay on the road, but on a course like today, I’m really good.
“So I want to focus on my strengths, and that’s cyclocross. And I think I can have a good career in cyclocross if I do well, and you have to look at that as well. And I like it, so I’m doing something I really like as well.”
For cyclocross fans wondering who will pick up the torch if Sven Nys — perhaps the sport’s greatest champion — retires as he said he would in 2014, the answer, it seems, has arrived. Niels Albert wasn’t just peering over his shoulder at third place on Sunday — he may have been taking a long look into the future, too.