After a daylong battle between Belgium and the Netherlands’ top cyclocross riders, Belgian Wout van Aert won Sunday’s elite cyclocross world championships in dramatic fashion after reeling in Dutchman Lars van der Haar on the penultimate lap.
Van Aert, 21, took the biggest win of his career just one week after wrapping up the UCI World Cup overall, and two years after winning the U-23 world championships.
“It was a crazy day and I worked hard for this championship the last few weeks,” van Aert said after the race. “To be honest, all season.”
Van Aert’s victory will undoubtedly go down as a cyclocross legend, considering the catastrophe he overcame at the event’s midpoint. Van Aert was riding just behind pre-race favorite Mathieu van der Poel, when a tight, left-hand turn forced the Dutchman to dismount. Van de Poel stepped directly into van Aert’s front wheel, and his foot became entangled in the spokes.
The mishap allowed van der Haar to open up a sizable gap on the field, and forced van Aert and van der Poel to waste valuable time untangling the mess, as other riders sped ahead.
After he freed himself, van Aert gave chase. After two laps, he eventually reeled in van der Haar, setting up the two-man finish.
“It was stupid for both of us, but afterward I kept my head cool, and I was really quickly into a good rhythm,” van Aert said. “To be honest, I have to thank [van der Poel] because afterwards I came into my really good rhythm and I just went full gas after this incident. And maybe it was something I needed to become world champion.”
In the laps before the incident, the race quickly evolved into a slugfest between cyclocross’ two dominant nations. Van der Poel, van Aert and van der Haar quickly separated themselves from the pack, with Belgians Sven Nys and Kevin Pauwels riding on their heels. Van Aert eventually slowed the pace to allow his Belgian countrymen to catch back on.
After van Aert’s incident, the race appeared to be in the hands of van der Haar, who maintained a 20-second gap for much of the race’s second half.
“The other guys couldn’t hold my wheel at that moment, so I think that my attack was on the perfect moment,” van der Haar said.
But van Aert refused to roll over, and gradually reeled in the Dutchman, making contact on the penultimate lap. On the final lap, the two took turns surging into the course’s various sections. Van der Haar appeared to grab the advantage on a sketchy, slick descent, only to have van Aert close the gap on the ensuing uphill.
Van Aert’s winning effort came on the final uphill run. Van der Haar attempted to ride the incline, but stopped midway to dismount his bicycle. After the race, he admitted he was in the wrong gear for the climb.
“I made one mistake, and that was the chain wasn’t on the small ring but on the big ring,” Van der Haar said. “And yeah, that’s a bit sour going home.”
Van Aert had enough time to raise his arms for the win. Behind him, countryman Pauwels took third, with Nys finishing fourth in his final elite race before retirement. Van der Poel sat up at the finish, rolling across in fifth.
Van Aert entered the race as a second-tier favorite behind van der Poel, who won the final four rounds of the UCI World Cup. The Belgian said he did not let the pre-race hype get to his head.
“I think all nations were expecting a one-man show of Mathieu van der Poel,” van Aert said. “I was really relaxed. I believed in my chance.”