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Lars van der Haar (Giant-Shimano) opened his World Cup title defense on Sunday with a dominating solo victory at the series opener in Valkenburg, the Netherlands.
Van der Haar got away from Kevin Pauwels as the Sunweb-Napoleon Games rider slid out on a bumpy descent, and that was all the advantage the Dutch champion needed.
He added to his advantage with each go-round, and raced into bell lap with a lead of more than a minute over a six-man chase containing Telenet-Fidea teammates Tom Meeusen, Corne Van Kessel and Thijs Van Amerongen; Philipp Walsleben (BKCP-Powerplus); and Sunweb teammates Pauwels and Klaas Vantornout.
Grinning as he punched the air, van der Haar took the first World Cup victory of the season with a half-minute in hand over the pursuit. Pauwels proved best of the rest, attacking late in the final lap for second. Van Kessel followed for third.
“After the first lap I just felt like I could win today. It just went perfect,” said van der Haar. “I didn’t expect to be this early alone, because Kevin Pauwels was really strong.
“I really came for the podium. I tried to get that pressure off a little bit, but after the first lap I felt I could win, and then I went full for the win.
“I’ve raced here now four times and I’ve won four times, so that’s pretty good.”
U.S. champion Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus) hit the line ninth at 1:10.
Hot day, fast start
It was a hot day, and riders were hitting the pits not for bikes, but for beverages.
Francis Mourey (FDJ.fr) and Jonathan Page (Fuji-Spy) were off and running with first-lap mechanicals as van der Haar quickly took command.
Meeusen and Pauwels worked their way up to him and it was a three-man group off the front, with Mourey and Gianni Vermeersch (Sunweb) chasing.
With seven to go van der Haar was on point and fighting to open a gap. Behind, German champion Walsleben caught Mourey and Vermeersch early in the lap.
A lap further along the lead trio still had a solid 15-second advantage over Walsleben, who had moved ahead of the other chasers.
Again van der Haar tried to ride away from his companions. But Pauwels stuck close, with Meeusen a few bike lengths behind, as Walsleben worked his way forward. Belgian champion Sven Nys (Crelan-AA Drink) was in a group of six a few seconds behind.
Pauwels soon rejoined van der Haar, but Meeusen was having trouble making the junction, chasing some six seconds back.
Pauwels crashes, van der Haar attacks
And then Pauwels slid out on a bumpy descent and van der Haar gave it the gas.
Heading into five laps to go van der Haar was all alone, with an 11-second gap over Meeusen and Pauwels. Walsleben was 21 seconds down in fourth and closing.
After his miscue Pauwels found it hard to stick with Meeusen, who had moved into sole possession of second.
With four to go, van der Haar remained alone, 26 seconds ahead of Meeusen and Pauwels, who had regained his composure, with Walsleben at 31 seconds. Vantornout and Nys were at 45 seconds.
Three to go saw van der Haar with a 41-second gap over Meeusen and Pauwels. Vantornout was moving up to Walsleben as behind, Nys was off the bike and struggling with a jammed chain. He would later abandon the race.
And soon it was a four-man battle for second.
With two to go van der Haar led the quartet by more than a minute, and a second chase — Telenet teammates Van Kessel and Van Amerongen — was closing in on the first. Powers and Vermeersch were just behind.
Going into the final lap van der Haar was untouchable. Vantornout tried to escape the now-six-man chase on the run-up, and then Van Kessel attacked on the flats, splitting the group in two.
Pauwels was next to go, charging out of a corner and onto the flyover. Van Kessel followed.
Two amazing performances
Ahead, van der Haar celebrated with a grin and an air-punch as he crossed the line alone. Pauwels’ late attack was good enough for the runner-up spot at 26 seconds, while Van Kessel hung on for third at 34 seconds.
“I was hearing a lot [about the gaps] and I really wanted to make a half a minute quick, and I got that, then it was 40 seconds. Then I was still riding a really hard pace, but trying not to kill myself, and then it still was going up,” he said. “So then I knew this was going to be good, so I was trying to do my pace and then, if needed, I could do a little punch more, but that wasn’t needed anymore.
“The last three laps were amazing, especially the last two laps I was really enjoying. Even the last lap I was even getting some goose bumps, it was really so beautiful, all the people cheering you so loud. It was amazing.”
Van Kessel, who had hoped for a top-10 finish, said it was “amazing” to finish on the podium.
“Before the race I expected top 10, and all the race I did between six and eight, and in the last lap the group in front of me didn’t ride any more. I could close the gap to place two, I think,” he said. “Tom Meeusen gave a sign to me that when I close the gap I have to go directly, and I tried and only Kevin passed me the last half lap or something.
“Normally I’m not [good in the heat] but we could drink in the race, and every lap you could drink I did, and I take a bottle of water on me to cool me down. And if I didn’t do that, then it was too hot for me.”
Powers pushes harder
The U.S. champion likewise had hoped for a top-10 finish, and he got one.
“It was good. It was hot for sure, but it was a good race for me,” said Powers. “I knew this was a good track and when it didn’t rain the last couple of days I thought, you know, it’ll be a little muddy, but generally speaking it’s going to be a good race for me. I’m in good form.
“It’s definitely eight more hard minutes than I’m used to, but I think that over here [in Europe] I can push harder because there’s more guys at the same level. It didn’t really affect me, I felt like maybe I was flat with three to go, I felt like I needed to take a break and I left off a little bit. But everyone seemed like they did.
“Generally, I’m happy with how it went because top 10 is what my goal was and I achieved that. It’s a great stone from here to step through. It’s a good place to start from with the beginning of the season with what I’m shooting for.”
The second round of the World Cup will be November 22 in Koksijde, Belgium.
Editor’s note: Dan Seaton contributed to this report.