Belgian Wout van Aert won a third straight elite men's world cyclocross championship on Sunday in Valkenburg, the Netherlands.

It is rare that a two-time defending champion begins the world championships as a big underdog, but as was the case for the Belgian Wout van Aert on Sunday. Van Aert overcame the odds in Valkenburg, the Netherlands to win the elite men’s UCI Cyclocross World Championship for a third consecutive year.

However, simply saying he won is an understatement. He finished over two minutes ahead of his nearest rival, fellow Belgian Michael Vanthourenhout. The former under-23 world cyclocross champion was ecstatic as he crossed the line to capture the silver medal.

Mathieu van der Poel entered the race the man to beat. He has over 25 victories this season and has been destroying the competition. Many of his victories seemed to come with ease and the rider getting second on most occasions was van Aert. Van der Poel was also on home soil, making him an even bigger favorite.

From the second lap onwards, van der Poel was unable to keep pace with van Aert and Belgian cruised to the victory nearly flawlessly. The one blemish was a crash on lap five when he clipped a post on the side of the course and flipped over the handlebars into the mud. He recovered quickly enough and kept on pushing forward.

Vanthourenhout attacked van der Poel on the fourth of seven laps, after catching the Dutchman at the end of the second lap. Van der Poel dug deep on the final lap and nearly clawed his way back to Vanthourenhout, but it was not enough.

Van der Poel’s bronze medal turned out to be key, as the Dutch just nearly avoided a Belgian sweep in the elite men’s race. It would have been embarrassing for the Netherlands to not only be locked out of the medals in the marquee event of the weekend, but also swept by its rival nation. Toon Aerts finished in fourth for Belgium and Lars van der Haar (Netherlands) finished fifth.

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As the elite men prepared to begin their race, the weather turned for the worst. A light sleeting rain had begun to fall and it would eventually turn into snow during the intense 70-minute affair. The riders would battle on the longer side of their allotted time due to the nine and a half minute laps the leader would turn over.

Van der Haar, who has had a lackluster year, took the holeshot with Tim Merlier (Belgium) close behind. American Stephen Hyde, who started on the second row of the grid behind van der Haar, benefited greatly from the young Dutchman’s burst of speed. Hyde was running in the top five ahead of van der Poel down the opening descent and through the first couple of turns.

Van Aert was also up front, as was Vanthourenhout. Van der Poel would soon join them at the pointy-end of the race, as he powered through a mud section that most were running.

There were briefly four riders in lead, before van der Poel and van Aert turned on that extra gear and broke away from everyone else. Vanthourenhout tried to go with them, but was unable to hold the pace and found himself in no man’s land all alone.

The top two cyclocrossers in the world were wheel-to-wheel to end the opening lap. After last season’s many duels, fans looked forward to this season, but were ultimately disappointed due to van der Poel’s dominance. It seemed the battle that many wanted was finally coming to fruition and on the biggest stage.

At the bottom of one of the descents, van der Poel slid into a fencing post and was briefly held up. This turned out to be the beginning of the end for the winner of the World Cup series.

Van Aert pounced on van der Poel’s mistake and turned a small gap into an enormous one by the end of the lap. He crossed the line with a 25-second lead, as the lap card read five to go. Van der Poel had slipped far enough back, that Vanthourenhout had caught him before the lap was over.

Aerts crossed the line nearly a minute down in fourth. He was about 20 seconds ahead of a somewhat big group that was being led by the Czech rider Michael BoroŠ. Other riders in the group included Belgian’s Laurens Sweeck, Daan Soete and Merlier, and the Italian Gioele Bertolini. Bertolini finished seventh in the under-23 men’s race at the 2017 world cyclocross championships in Biel, Luxembourg.

The two-time defending champion powered through lap three and van Aert extened his lead over van der Poel and Vanthourenhout to more than a minute. Aerts had a strong grip on fourth place and was slowly chipping away at his deficit to the podium. With four laps to go, Aerts was 20 seconds behind the duo claiming the silver and bronze medals.

After a stellar start, van der Haar was having a tough go of it and was seen riding as low as 13th. Although, he would turn on the power in the second half of the race and charge back up the leaderboard.

The fifth lap proved to be one of the most critical in the race. Van Aert crashed, seemingly showing he was on the limit and not invincible, but on the other hand, van der Poel took a hard blow.

Van der Poel took the wrong line into a small hill and midway up the hill, he was forced to dismount and run. Vanthourenhout charged into the hill and rode it cleanly and then attacked hard while van der Poel was running. There was immediately daylight between the two.

The heavy pre-race favorite, van der Poel, seemed to take Vanthourenhout’s attack mentally hard as his intensity seemed to drop for the rest of the race. He got a scare as Aerts came within touching distance of him, but he turned back on the gas just enough during the final lap to secure the bronze medal.

Van Aert went into the pits for a clean bike for the final half lap and shook his head in apparent disbelief to his mechanics. His lead was over two minutes. He was able to cruise and enjoy the cheer of the crowd through the final minutes of the race.

While van Aert crossed the line happy to win a third straight world title, his joy was nowhere near Vanthourenhout’s. The 24-year-old pumped his fist, as he crossed the line with tears in his eyes. He came to stop and slumped down onto his handlebars and cried tears of happiness.

Aerts came home in fourth, as Belgium just missed a clean sweep of the elite men’s podium. Van der Haar was able to fight all the way back up to the fifth spot. Bertolini finished a surprising sixth.

The top American on the day was Hyde, who finished the day in 15th place. He was the only American to complete the entire race. Of the 56 starters in all, only 22 finished all seven laps.

Full results