Wout wins again: Van Aert takes second world title after muddy duel with Mathieu van der Poel

by Neal Rogers

Belgium’s Wout van Aert claimed a second consecutive world cyclocross championship Sunday in Bieles, Luxembourg, after a muddy duel with perennial rival Mathieu van der Poel of the Netherlands.

The 22-year-old from Herentals, who skipped last weekend’s World Cup race in Hoogerheide due to a knee injury, rode a measured race over a hilly and slippery course, much of it off-camber, with sharp rocks seemingly everywhere, hidden under mud and ice.

Van Aert sat sixth after the first lap, made contact with van der Poel on the fourth of eight laps, and then attacked when van der Poel punctured at the end of the fifth lap.

“I really didn’t expect this,” van Aert said. “Last week I went one week without riding, and it seemed like no one believed in me. It was not the best preparation. I just wanted to give full gas for one hour. It was also a pity that bad luck was with Mathieu, but of course I couldn’t wait for that. I’m so happy with my second world title.”

After Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands) opened an early lead, he and Wout van Aert (Belgium) rode together at the front of the race for two laps. Photo: NV/PN/Cor Vos.

For a few moments, it appeared as though van der Poel might solo to victory. The 2015 world champion appeared to have been shot out of a cannon at the start, taking the holeshot and opening a 15-second lead over a chase group. Only Belgium’s Kevin Pauwels could follow the pace, until a puncture saw him lose contact early on the second lap.

Van der Poel rode alone for the first half of the 60-minute race, holding a 10-second lead over van Aert. The Belgian made contact on Lap 4, and the two young rivals rode together for the fourth and fifth laps, exchanging the race lead several times, until Van der Poel’s rear puncture — his fourth on the day — would prove to the decisive moment of the race. It happened a good distance from the mechanical pits, and the Dutch rider would never see the front again.

Though the gap between van Aert and van der Poel was 22 seconds after the Dutch rider’s bike change, it expanded each lap. Van der Poel crossed the line in tears, 44 seconds back, left to wonder what might have been. Emotions remained high throughout the podium presentation.

“I felt physically ready to win. It’s not nice to lose by bad luck. This is the biggest disappointment of my career,” van der Poel told Sporza, in tears. From my first three punctures I could hold my lead, and when I was on the wheel of Wout, I got more confidence. But the last puncture happened too far from the pit lane. The fourth flat tire was too much.”

Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands) called his silver medal at the 2017 world cyclocross championship, after four punctures, the “biggest disappointment” of his young career. Photo: Davy Rietbergen/Cor Vos.

Punctures were abundant, with Sporza reporting that former world champion Lars Boom was unable to finish because after five punctures, his pit crew ran out of spare wheels.

Van Aert also punctured, earlier on the fifth— albeit much closer to the mechanic’s pits.

“Mathieu had a flat tire on the finish line, a long way to the pit lane,” van Aert said. “That was one of the most important [moments] in the race, but that’s also cyclocross. I also had a flat tire, but it was just in front of the pits.”

Pauwels finished third, 2:09 back, with Lars van der Haar (Netherlands) in fourth, 2:52 down. Only 29 riders finished on the lead lap. American Stephen Hyde finished 18th, 5:41 back.

Wout van Aert (Belgium) was emotional after winning the 2017 world cyclocross championship, saying that in the week before the race, it had felt as though “no one believed in me.” Photo Anton Vos/Cor Vos.

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