Wout Van Aert (Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace Cycling Team) won the storied Koppenbergcross round of the Bpost Bank Trofee series on Saturday, but the finish-line shot was not a pretty picture.
The under-23 world champion was on the front going into the final corner leading to the pavement straightaway with Belgian champ Sven Nys (Crelan-AA Drink) on his wheel when they overhauled a lapped Vastgoedservice rider, Jan Denuwelaere, who was slow to get out of the way.
As the three hit the pavement, Van Aert sailed to the win, while behind, Nys twisted around in the saddle to gesticulate angrily at his teammate. Van Aert was exultant at the line, but the Belgian champion was anything but, having to settle for second on the day.
Nys said that his form was good and his tactics perfect. “The only thing that was wrong was that there was a guy in the last turn, or in the last corner, who was in the middle of the road where I tried to come near Wout. And my speed was totally gone and I lost one or two meters and the race was finished,” he said.
Van Aert said it was “a pity that there was an incident in the sprint for Sven.”
“In the last grass section I saw my teammate, Jan Denuwelaere in front of us. And it was a little bit a mistake that he kept on the inside of the last corner, and for me also. I had to go around him. So I thought, ‘Huh, that could be tricky.’
“But I just went full gas in the last straight line and that was my tactic, to go first on the last asphalt section … and then go just full gas until the finish line. That was my tactic and I didn’t look behind.”
Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Napoleon Games) showed some of his old fire, finishing third after a short-lived late-race break.
Lars van der Haar (Giant-Shimano) quickly moved to the front on the first climb, driving a seven-rider selection by the second ascent that included Nys, Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb) and Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea). Rob Peeters (Vastgoedservice) was there, too, but took a digger on the switchbacks of the technical descent, right behind Nys.
As the first lap wound up there was a six-rider group off the front with a seven-second gap. Philipp Walsleben (BKCP-Powerplus) led the chase, which caught on in time for the climb and doubled the size of the lead group.
Again van der Haar pushed the pace. And again, he split the group. Nys came forward for the descent and drove the group to still greater efforts.
In the third go-round Nys cracked the lead group into a quartet chased by a quartet: the Belgian champ, Vantornout, Walsleben, and Van Aert, pursued by van der Haar, Meeusen, Thijs Van Amerongen (Telenet) and Pauwels.
Attacks and counters saw the two groups fuse, shatter and reform on the hilly, technical circuit.
Pauwels powers up
With five laps to go van der Haar forced a split with Van Aert and Meeusen. Pauwels launched a solo chase out of the second group as Van Aert had a go off the front; he was pulled back as Nys led Vantornout in pursuit.
Nys and Vantornout chased back on during the next lap, though Nys seemed to be having trouble staying in contact. Meeusen took the front, and van der Haar laid it down in a tight left-hander on the sinuous descent, slipping to the back of the group.
With three to go the lead group contained Pauwels, van der Haar, Nys, Vantornout, Meeusen and Van Aert. Then Pauwels made a break for it going through the start-finish and van der Haar led the chase.
Pauwels built a 15-second gap by the pit at the top of the course as Van Aert led the chase with Vantornout. Nys and Meeusen were just behind, while van der Haar had lost the wheel and was on his own.
Pauwels had a lead of 15 seconds over Van Aert and Vantornout with two laps remaining. Nys and Meeusen were chasing a further five seconds down.
Then Nys launched a major attack on the climb, surging into third behind Van Aert, as Pauwels went over the top. Van Aert was just six seconds behind the leader, and Nys was breathing down the younger rider’s neck.
Van Aert caught Pauwels just short of the line going into bell lap, while Nys lurked just behind. Vantornout was at 10 seconds.
Van Aert pushed into the lead through a short muddy section. Pauwels stuck with him, though, and Nys continued to hover just off the back.
Vantornout got back to the group on the cobbles, and Van Aert attacked once more going onto the grass. Nys sat second, with Vantornout and Pauwels behind.
Then the Belgian champion powered into the lead and only Van Aert could go with him.
Van Aert led Nys on the descent, periodically checking over his shoulder to see how Nys was faring. Pauwels was alone in third.
Van Aert won the sprint, but not without controversy. An outraged Nys — who may very well have been beaten regardless — made much of the lapped Denuwelaere getting in the way as Van Aert celebrated at the line. But the victory stood, and Nys found himself on the second step of the podium with Pauwels third.
“Last week I also won a really heavy race, and that gave me the confidence to just really focus on this race and give everything I had,” said Van Aert. “I had the tactic to stay all the race in the front. It was a dry version of the Koppenberg, so it’s always really tactical until the end.
“I was waiting for the last attack of Sven. I think his tactic was to let us fight against each other and then he came out with his final attack and I was happy I could answer it and I was still in the wheel on top of the climb. And then I went just in front in the downhill to not have to take all the risks, and then in the last grass section I was just in front of the race and my tactic was to go first to the last straight line and then went full gas to the finish line.
“So I’m really happy with this win. It’s amazing to win this race. Sven is always, every year, very motivated to win here, and beating him here is probably one of the most difficult moments of the year, so it’s amazing.”
Nys faulted the UCI commissaire for not pulling Denuwelaere before he could pose a problem. But he had a word for the rider as well.
“There is only one solution, that’s drop the rider out of the race with the 80 percent rule, then nothing can happen. But then you need to be smart enough when there is no 80 percent rule to go out of the way when there is a sprint for the victory in one of the most important races of the season,” Nys said.
“I feel now like I raced for nothing. I’m second, but that’s nothing for me. I came to win this race, everything worked really well, but there was no sprint for me and that’s frustrating.”
Editor’s note: Dan Seaton contributed to this report.