Mathieu Van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) rode faultlessly through a heavy, technical course to win by over a minute at Namur, Sunday.
“Now that we’ve raced here a couple of years, it’s becoming a little bit easier, but it’s still difficult,” said the winner about the tricky course.
The race went out hard as the pack went straight up the opening climb. The field was led to the summit by Laurens Sweeck (Pauwels Sauzen-Vastgoedservice), with Van der Poel, Michael Vanthourenhout (Marlux-Bingoal), and Corne van Kessel (Telenet-Fidea Lions) close behind.
Wout Van Aert had a poor start, missing his pedal on the line, and found himself mid-pack before the race had truly begun.
Through the opening lap, the lead group shuffled many times, made up of Sweeck, Van Kessel, Van der Poel, Vanthourenhout, Kevin Pauwels (Marlux-Bingoal), and Toon Aerts (Telenet-Fidea Lions), with these six all within seconds of each other.
Van Aert was not phased by the unfortunate start, and worked his way through the field. By the start of lap two, he had fought back to 16 seconds off the lead, and was approaching the six leaders.
With the front six locked together in lap two, the decisive attack of the race came on the greasy off-camber straight, where Van der Poel accelerated hard and passed Aerts, who was then in the lead of the pack. The attack’s ferocity was evident in that the leader had a five second lead over Aerts within a few bends.
As the race approached lap three, Van der Poel had a 23-second advantage over Aerts, who lead the chasers. Vanthourenhout and Van Kessel came next, with Sweeck, Pauwels, and Van Aert fighting for fifth.
The off-camber that cost Aerts the lead position caused him difficulty again on lap three, as he lost the bike beneath him and crashed hard, allowing Vanthourenhout and Van Aert to catch him and form a trio fighting for second.
Aerts soon slipped back off this group, leaving Van Aert and Vanthourenhout around 30 seconds behind Van Der Poel through lap four. At the head of the race, Van der Poel was imperious, sliding the bike around bends and looking totally at ease.
Vanthourenhout started to fade slightly in lap four as the course became heavier and boggier, with Aerts and Joris Nieuwenhuis (Sunweb) passing him. Van Aert by now had formed a significant gap over this fight for third place, though it looked unlikely he would bridge the significant gap across to Van der Poel.
As the race entered lap five, Van Aert was 32 seconds behind the leader, and Aerts was 18 seconds behind him, as gaps started stretching throughout the field. Nieuwenhuis rode confidently through the second half of the race, passing Aerts to take third place. Vanthourenhout held fifth place.
At the front, Van der Poel and Van Aert remained locked around 40 seconds apart, and with neither rider making a mistake nor tiring, the gap looked unlikely to shift.
In the final lap, Van der Poel stretched his gap out slightly and wheelied his way across the line to take the win in 1:03:37.
“The crowds were awesome again here today; I love racing here,” said Van der Poel.
Van Aert crossed the line 1:04 back, with Aerts 46 seconds behind him in third, after managing to overhaul Nieuwenhuis in the final lap.