Van der Haar winning the European title.

A chat with Lars van der Haar, cyclocross’s man of the moment

At 30, the Dutchman is having one of his best seasons in years with a European title and a World Cup win.

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Lars van der Haar is the man of the moment. The 30-year-old Dutch rider won the European cyclocross title in the Netherlands in early November and then added a UCI World Cup win in Tabór last weekend. And he has more races on his wishlist for the upcoming weeks. “I always do well in Koksijde but I also like Antwerp or the race in Kortrijk,” Van der Haar tells CyclingTips on his way to team training. “But I try my best in all the races, whether they suit me or not.” 

Van der Haar has been around for a while. After switching from other sports like gymnastics and judo, he started cycling around 20 years ago. As an U23 rider he became European champion in 2010 and 2011 and world champion in both 2011 and 2012, the last one in the sand of Koksijde.

Although he did try a road racing career at WorldTour level with Giant-Shimano – where he almost won a stage in the Tour of Luxembourg just to be beaten by André Greipel – he is now a full-time cyclocross rider. 

“I know I am not a prolific winner on the road,” he says. “It’s all about knowing your own qualities and mine are in cyclocross.

“You do see more road racers in cyclocross now because of what Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, or Tom Pidcock showed, and I do feel that racing ‘cross can benefit other road riders but only if you have some previous cyclocross experience. For road riders without any background, it won’t be much fun but with someone like Heinrich Haussler you see it really benefits him. He is also getting better at it and finishes races now.”

Lars van der Haar at the Superprestige at Ruddervoorde.

Van der Haar is as down to earth as they come. He is softly spoken and realistic in his expectations and not the man who wants a fanclub or a parade. “I always feel a bit uneasy with all the attention,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the support during races but I always hope they support for all the riders. You are a true supporter if you support everyone and not boo the others.”

The Baloise-Trek rider says that the calendar is the busiest it has ever been with 16 UCI World Cup races on Sundays this season, and other races like the X2O and Superprestige events as well. For now, the high work load seems to suit him well.

“For now, it goes very well indeed but I am not living on a cloud [after two wins],” he says. “It has been hard with some really tough races, lots of mud, and long transfers as well, including a jetlag with the US races. The calendar is OK at the moment but it will get really crazy from the World Cup in Rucphen on 18 December and then all the way to the national championships on 9 January.”

Cyclocross has three major classifications: the UCI World Cup, the Superprestige, and the X20 Badkamers Trofee. Riding all races in that period would amount to nine races in three weeks with five of them clustered in one week – the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

“It’s hard to say whether I focus on a specific classification because you can only say how you are doing after four or five races and we are not there yet,” he explains. “I am not sure if I am going to race all the World Cups this year but a classification like the X20 suits me better. The Koppenbergcross [on November 1] is always important when it comes to points for that one so I had a good start [Van der Haar finished third]. And we can always use a new bathroom at home,” he says jokingly, referring to the main sponsor who sells bathrooms.

Van der Haar winning the World Cup in Tabór, Czech Repulblic.

The season got off to a flying start for Van der Haar. He has been thinking about explanations for why it ran so smoothy after two seasons without a single win. 

“Sven [Nys] and I were talking about that the other day,” he says. “We haven’t really been doing anything different this year. I do feel that I have been able to train without interruption for two straight years. I did have COVID but no one could ride then so it wasn’t bad.

“Also, it helps mentally if you can compete for podiums or wins. It adds much more fun and self-confidence to the sport. It’s always a great feeling to be the one making a race than to be the one led to the slaughter,” he adds with a smile in his voice.

Courses with natural obstacles and some climbing are what suit the lightweight Van der Haar best. He is not a fan of too many manmade obstacles like the 30 ditches in Loenhout every year but he emphasizes he does his best in every race he starts and likes the variety on offer during the season. Courses are also defined by weather circumstances and this season has been particularly muddy so far.

“It sometimes feels like it has been raining since April and it’s also raining a lot during the races,” he says. “In the flatter, muddy races it’s a disadvantage for me as a lighter rider but uphill all the mud doesn’t make a huge difference anymore. On the VAM-berg [the manmade hill in the Netherlands on top of a garbage tip where the European championships were held – ed.] I found a course for me. I knew I could get a podium spot and on a good day the win.

“It always depends on what the others do but when they see a Dutch guy attack, the Belgians chase as as a group. My next imminent goal is Koksijde [where he became U23 world champion] this weekend.”

Van der Haar doesn’t experience the animosity that sometimes exists between Dutch and the Belgians in the cyclocross world. These two nations define the results in the top races nowadays with the Dutch dominant in women’s races and the Belgians in the men’s races.

“I ride for a Belgian team with mostly Belgian sponsors and they are as happy to see me win as they are when Toon Aerts wins,” he says. “In championships there is a different atmosphere but in all other races they don’t see me as ‘the Dutch guy’. I think the wish for the sport to be more international comes from the outside.

“When I race, I don’t see flags but I see other teams. I see rivals I want to beat. Whether they are Belgian, or from Italy, China or wherever doesn’t matter to me. I just want to win.” 

Although there is some crossover between road and ‘cross, or mountain bike and ‘cross, Van der Haar focuses solely on cyclocross after a very short try on the mountain bike.

“I tried mountain biking as a junior and almost got a silver medal at the national championships but then I had a flat,” he recalls. “Cyclocross and mountain biking are so different. In mountain biking the uphill efforts are much longer. In ‘cross we have mostly 40-50 seconds maximum efforts before the next turn comes. In mountain biking your position is different as well and you ride a different cadence. And the bikes are very different of course.

“No, I think you can’t compare the two and you can’t say that great mountain bikers automatically do well in cross and vice versa. The ones who can combine the two are exceptional talents.” 

Born in 1991 Van der Haar is already one of the older riders in the men’s peloton. He doesn’t think about the long-term future yet but instead looks to races in his more immediate vision.

“I am not going to put a limit on the number of years I will go on,” he says. “I look at my career in the short term. There are some races in the coming weeks I focus on but also the world championships in Fayetteville next year are on my list. I think the course suits me well but it depends on the weather which, with a continental climate, is hard to predict and can change instantly.

“This year we had a muddy race but the track was still great and rideable. For a mud race it was fast. That might change when the other five race categories have already done it before us at Worlds,” he adds. 

“This year [at the World Cup in Fayetteville] I made a rookie mistake by eating too much before the race [Van der Haar came in 14th] but the course is certainly to my liking. It has one of the longest climbs in cyclocross. The effort starts before you can really see it on TV. I think in total the climb will be 70, maybe even 80 or 90 seconds. I will train specifically for that effort in the coming months.” 

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