Lars van der Haar (Giant-Alpecin) put on a show for the home folks on Sunday, dominating round two of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup in the Netherlands.
Series leader Wout Van Aert (Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace) wasted little time prying open a gap in Valkenburg. He took off on the first lap, chased by van der Haar, Sven Nys (Crelan-AA Drink) and defending World Cup champion Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Napoleon Games).
But van der Haar bridged to Van Aert and then left him behind after the first go-round, and he never looked back, leaving Van Aert, Nys and Pauwels to fight for the lesser steps on the podium.
Asked whether he had a strategy going in, van der Haar replied: “Yes, race. Race hard and don’t look back.”
He clearly wasn’t keen on letting the World Cup leader run away with the race from the gun.
“You can’t let him go,” he said.
So he didn’t. After first catching, then dropping the leader, van der Haar roared into lap with an eight-second edge on Van Aert and Pauwels, with Nys chasing at 10.
With six to go van der Haar had padded his advantage to 20 seconds; a lap later, he had added nine seconds to his edge over the pursuing trio.
“I don’t think I really, really attacked, but I just kept the pace so high and I was good enough today to not really make any mistakes,” he said. “And if someone makes a mistake behind you, you’ve got a really quick five seconds, and then you can build that to half a minute.”
With four to go van der Haar led by 38 seconds. Behind, Nys kept laying down short accelerations, occasionally leaving the others with a gap to close, but couldn’t break entirely free.
The gap remained steady with three laps to go, and then Pauwels lost a bit of ground and finally fell out of the chase altogether as first Nys, then Van Aert pushed the pace.
With two to go Pauwels was well distanced as van der Haar held his advantage.
Come bell lap the Dutchman took a cushion of 37 seconds into the final go-round as Nys and Van Aert battled for second and third.
Van Aert tried a move on a steep run-up and finally put some daylight between himself and Nys. But the veteran kept his cool and closed the gap, marking the World Cup leader’s wheel and betting on a sprint.
But Nys had to dab going into a short sharp climb, and Van Aert quickly took advantage. The win would go to van der Haar — his third in Valkenburg — but Van Aert took the runner-up spot 24 seconds later ahead of Nys, who took third 10 seconds later.
It may have looked easy to the spectators, but it wasn’t for van der Haar, especially “the last two laps for sure.”
“You don’t know what they’ve got left in the tank,” he said. “I was really suffering.”
Asked how it felt to lose for a change, Van Aert replied: “I don’t really mind. I’m glad I don’t have to answer all those questions anymore. Now I can prepare myself calmly for the next races.
“How did they beat me? They just went faster. I tried in the first lap with an attack, but then Lars came back and counterattacked and I couldn’t follow. After that it was riding for second place.
“The course doesn’t suit me very well. I like more mud, more uphill.”
Nys was content with third, saying van der Haar was the best man on this course, on this day.
“Third isn’t bad. Definitely you want to win the race, but Lars was too strong today,” he said. “He didn’t make any mistakes. His accelerations were really strong. His weight is the difference here. You see it the last two years that these are small, explosive climbs and he is a small guy and technically is really good in these conditions.
“Okay, we lost 30 seconds and then we fought for second. At the end I made a small mistake and it cost me maybe a second place, but I’m happy with the result.”
Van Aert continues to lead the World Cup with 150 points. Van der Haar moved into second with 140, while Nys now sits third with 135.
The next round of the World Cup will be November 22 at Koksijde, Belgium.
Editor’s note: Dan Seaton contributed to this report.