Wout Van Aert launched a late attack and made it stick to win the Asper-Gavere round of the Superprestige series on Sunday.
After a few miscues early on, the Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace rider got down to business and finally made his move on a tough climb with less than three laps remaining, dropping a lead group that included Sven Nys (Crelan-AA Drink), Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Napoleon Games) and Lars van der Haar (Alpecin-Giant), and holding them off to the end.
Pauwels and Nys chased, but couldn’t make up any ground on Van Aert, as van der Haar lost the wheel and slipped out of contention.
As the Dutchman faded, Van Aert rode flawlessly in the final laps to take the victory. Sixteen seconds later, Nys outsprinted a clearly frustrated Pauwels for second.
“In the beginning I made a few mistakes, so the first half of the race was not really my best,” said Van Aert. “Afterwards I took some time to come into a good rhythm. I was a little bit surprised that I got so easily a gap in the final.
“Today was a good track for me. I won already three times in the under-23 here. And now it’s the fourth time in a row. I’m happy to be here and I really like the course in Asper-Gavere.”
One guy who probably didn’t was Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea), who got a wretched start, apparently breaking his chain and having to run to the pit for a spare; he would finish, but only in 23rd place.
Laurens Sweeck (Corendon-Kwadro) and David Van der Poel (BKCP-Powerplus) both got off to strong starts, chased by Van Aert. The two pried open a bit of a gap as van der Haar chased through the field to move into third.
The Dutchman latched onto the leaders as Nys led a chase that linked up going into the second lap, putting a nine-man group at the head of affairs, including the Sunweb-Napoleon Games tandem of Pauwels and Klaas Vantornout, plus Nys, who went straight to the front and set about making life difficult.
Sweeck and van der Haar followed as Nys pressed the pace. But a miscue on a muddy stretch sent the Dutchman into the course tape and Nys was off by himself.
He didn’t stay alone for long. Van der Haar fought back up to him after pitting for a new bike while Sweeck chased just ahead of Van Aert and the Sunwebs.
As the second lap wrapped up Nys and van der Haar were off the front with Sweeck, Pauwels, Vantornout and Van Aert chasing.
That chase quickly dwindled to Sweek, Pauwels and Van Aert, who was bombing the descents. The others had trouble following, and after Van Aert worked his way up to the leaders, it was a trio that hit the pits for clean machines.
Pauwels was next to make the connection, and with five to go, the quartet had 16 seconds over their closest chasers.
Nys stayed on the front, launching attacks on the climbs. He finally got a gap and pressed his advantage on the descent, aided by a miscue from Van Aert, who got caught up in some course markers.
But Pauwels led the chase up to Nys, and with four to go it was the same quartet away with the closest chase more than a half minute down.
Van Aert and van der Haar led the group as Nys took a rest from attacks. Then van der Haar took the front going into a bridge crossing and upped the tempo on a long muddy stretch leading to a long ascent.
He opened a five-second gap over Van Aert by the pit, but the others gradually pulled him back, and with three to go it was still four men out front and anybody’s race with Sweeck leading a chase at 48 seconds down.
Van der Haar took the front again, marked by Van Aert. As the Dutch rider pitted, Van Aert attacked on the descent, opening a gap. But Nys marked him, Pauwels followed, and van der Haar soon rejoined.
Van Aert attacked again, this time on the climb to the pit, and this time he opened a big gap, even after taking a bike. The others skipped the pit that time around and stuck to the chase.
Nys said Van Aert’s pace on the climb “was a little bit too fast for me,” and he held back, hoping to rebound in the final laps.
“I waited until we were at the top of the climb and I thought when I tried to stay focused and tried to stay with Kevin, hopefully we could come back. But he was too strong,” Nys said.
With two to go Nys and the others were already 12 seconds down. Pauwels came forward to lend a hand, but Van Aert was committed to his move and would not be caught. He thundered up the short, steep climb that Nys had been using for his attacks, took a 24-second advantage into bell lap, and held onto most of it while celebrating his victory.
“I wasn’t scared of the muddy races, I like them more than the fast races. It’s easier for the beginning and it’s [more quickly into] small groups than in the sunny races,” said Van Aert. “The rain is now here in Belgium and I’m also happy that I could win the first time in other conditions.”
Behind, Pauwels and Nys shed van der Haar and came to the finishing stretch together. Nys had that little something extra for the finale, and took second over a clearly frustrated Pauwels.
“I know this race very well and I used my experience to try to win this race,” said Nys. “I felt directly that I had good legs and I tried. But, okay, there were three guys who were coming back. Then it’s more tactical and it’s, stay on the bike, stay focused, don’t make any mistake.
“I’m happy with the result, because there was one guy who was too strong. Second place was a good result.”
Pauwels said he wasn’t on a good day and was “just holding on” after a poor start.
“I really didn’t feel super. Pretty good, but not good enough,” he said. “First I didn’t get off the start that well, and then I couldn’t move up right away. After that I was never really comfortable in the front group. I was just holding on, and that’s why I was constantly back. I definitely don’t think I was better than the others today, so I think today I didn’t have much more in me.
“I had not thought Sven would come back to me. After the corner I thought I had a gap, so I went full gas. But then I saw Sven still was next to me, and cursing was all I could do.”
Editor’s note: Dan Seaton contributed to this report from Gavere.