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Sven Nys won a thrilling duel with Wout Van Aert at the Koksijde round of the World Cup series on Sunday, getting the better of the series leader in a long muddy section and holding his advantage to the line.
Nys (Crelan-AA Drink) and Van Aert (Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace) were locked together in the final laps, neither man able to gain a significant edge over the other.
It all came down to one long, soggy sprint through a final muddy section, and Nys proved the stronger of the two, taking a few bike lengths onto the 100-meter finishing straight.
Van Aert had no response, and could only drop his head as Nys celebrated his 50th World Cup victory as an elite rider, and his second of the weekend, following Saturday’s win at the Soudal GP Hasselt.
“It’s awesome. It’s a great feeling,” said Nys. “Because it’s a victory against the best in the world at the moment.”
Van Aert told Sporza.be that he was not at his best in Koksijde, and had made a few mistakes, adding that he had expected Nys — known for his strength on a second day of racing — to be at his best after winning on Saturday.
“A lot of respect for him, for today and throughout his career,” said Van Aert.
World champion Mathieu van der Poel (BKCP-Corendon) — back to racing after recovering from knee surgery — had a strong showing, starting fast, fading briefly, and then battling back to take the third step on the podium.
He and Van Aert quickly established themselves as the men to beat on Sunday, forging a lead group wth Laurens Sweeck (ERA-Murprotec), Corné van Kessel (Telenet-Fidea) and European champion Lars van der Haar (Giant-Alpecin) at the end of the first lap.
That lead group grew as the second lap wound on, with first Sweeck and then van der Haar pushing the pace.
Van der Haar and van der Poel pried open a small gap, but Sweeck and Van Aert stayed within striking distance. Then Sweeck lost contact in the sand and van der Poel, Van Aert and van der Haar were away.
And then van der Poel thundered up a sandy climb that the others had to run. Van Aert fought back up to him and the two men took a seven-second edge over van der Haar into six laps to go.
Nys began leading a chase as the sleet fell and a tough course became even more so. Van der Haar was with him, as was Telenet’s Tom Meeusen.
Van Aert punched it on a long running section and took a small lead. And this time it was him riding the steep sandy hill with van der Poel having to dismount. Then van der Haar slid out in a slick corner, taking Meeusen with him, and suddenly the pecking order was Van Aert leading Nys with van der Poel third.
Nys took the front then and laid down a powerful acceleration in the sand. Van Aert caught on, and with five to go the two had 11 seconds over a chase fronted by van der Poel and van de Haar.
Their gap established, the two set about adding to it. With four to go they led by 24 seconds over Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Napoleon Games) and van der Haar.
Again Van Aert took a lead in the long running section, and again Nys closed him down. Behind, Pauwels, van der Haar and Meeusen were battling for third, with Pauwels finally finding his legs after a rough start.
With three to go the two leaders stayed locked together. Pauwels had sole possession of third at 25 seconds with Meeusen and van der Haar chasing. Van der Poel, meanwhile, had faded back to a chase group some 49 seconds down.
Nys gave it the gas ahead of the pits, putting some distance on Van Aert and sailing past as the World Cup leader took a fresh bike.
The 39-year-old took a half-dozen seconds’ advantage over Van Aert, but the younger man was far from done. The 21-year-old kept Nys in sight despite making a few mistakes, hoping that Nys would make one of his own. And with a little less than two laps to go they were back together, while Pauwels led a chase with Sweeck and Meeusen, soon augmented by van der Haar and van der Poel.
Again Nys attacked, and again Van Aert answered. The older man had the technical edge, which served him to good advantage in the dunes, but Van Aert always fought back.
Van Aert led Nys across the line and into the final go-round. Behind, van der Poel had taken sole possession of third at 46 seconds.
Van Aert stayed in front, hoping to ride or run Nys off his wheel. And it finally happened, as Nys had to dismount to run a dune that his younger rival rode.
Nys fought back up to him, though, and then attacked onto a flat section. Van Aert repaid him in kind on a running stretch. And then the two lined up for a drag race through the mud, an exhibition of sheer power that saw Nys hit the pavement first and take the win.
A dejected Van Aert finished second, four seconds down, while van der Poel hung on for third at 1:06.
Van Aert continues to lead the World Cup series with 220 points. Nys sits second with 215 while van der Haar is third with 200.
The next round of the World Cup will be December 20 at Namur, Belgium.