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Belgian Wout van Aert won a thrilling race against Dutch rider Lars van der Haar to take his first elite world cyclocross championship, on home soil, in Zolder, Belgium.
The 21-year-old van Aert, who was second last year to Mathieu van der Poel after a mechanical issue followed by a crash, looked to be in danger of a repeat scenario of 2015 on the fifth of eight laps, when van der Poel slid out on a tricky uphill bend. Van Aert plowed into the back of van der Poel, with the Dutch rider’s foot stuck in van Aert’s front wheel.
The pair lost valuable time untangling while van der Haar attacked, going clear of what had been a dangerous eight-rider front group composed entirely of Belgian and Dutch riders.
“I was very surprised when Mathieu suddenly closed the door,” van Aert said. “He stayed too long with his foot in my wheel. But really I must thank Mathieu, because after that I found my rhythm.”
Van der Haar rode solo at the front for almost 20 minutes, opening a 30-second lead, while van Aert patiently worked his way back through a group that also contained Belgians Kevin Pauwels and Sven Nys, as well as Dutch rider David van der Poel.
Halfway into the seventh of eight laps, van Aert made contact with van der Haar, and from there to the finish line it was a two-man duel for the rainbow jersey.
Both men looked strong and rode confidently, with van der Haar, the better sprinter of the two, making an incredible late-race pass on a steep, slick descent. But on the course’s final, decisive feature, a sandy uphill running section, van Aert opened up a gap that van der Haar could not close.
By the time he’d reached the paved finishing straight, van Aert’s advantage was enough to celebrate the victory in front of a partisan home crowd that had booed loudly at van der Haar, and even spat in his face.
“There were some points in the course where fans were spitting on me, and I got a lot of beer on me,” van der Haar said. “In the moment you’re focused on the race and you’re doing your thing, that you’re not really paying attention to that.”
Van der Haar’s face was ashen as he crossed the line five seconds behind van Aert, left to wonder what might have been. He later admitted that he’d come into the final climb in the big ring, which may have cost him the race.
“I made one mistake — the chain wasn’t on the small ring, but on the big ring,” Van der Haar said. “Yeah, that’s a bit sour, going home.”
Behind van der Haar, Pauwels finished in third, at 35 seconds, with Nys in fourth, at 0:39, in his final world championship.
“This worlds was never for me,” Pauwels said. “In the beginning I did not feel well and I had to only follow. It was difficult against these young men.”
Nys, aged 39, was in tears when discussing his fourth-place finish. “I am very emotional. I never thought that would happen. I did what I could. On the final climb I couldn’t hang on, but I am incredibly happy with my performance. I’m fourth, a few seconds from the podium, and I fought for the title. I never dared to dream that I might still at my age.”
Mathieu van der Poel, who had chased back to bronze-medal contention on the final lap, just 11 seconds behind the two leaders, finished fifth, at 47 seconds.
“I’m very disappointed, if I’m honest,” van der Poel told Sporza. “I came here to win and on the final lap I found it difficult to even fight for third place. On the first lap I could tell I didn’t have the form of recent weeks. When I was with Van Aert and Van der Haar at first, I did not pull through. I was not super. It was very difficult to ride alone. Why, I do not know. I can not blame myself for a bad day. I had a good training week and I felt like I was ready for it, but that’s sport. Onward.”
Van der Poel was also complimentary of van Aert’s comeback from their mid-race tangle.
“It was certainly not my intention to put my foot Wout’s wheel, because I myself also paid the price,” van der Poel said. “It’s amazing how Wout still put things right. He is after this season a deserved world champion. I think everyone feels he deserves this jersey.”
In all, the top eight riders all hailed from either Belgium or the Netherlands.
“I may have won the World Cup series this season, but I was not considered as the favorite for the race,” said van Aert, who was moved to tears on the podium as the Belgian national anthem was played. “The man to beat was Mathieu. But I think I made a big performance.”