The battle of Bieles
Two races were on schedule on a chilly Sunday, during the second and final day of the UCI Cyclo-cross World championships in Bieles, Luxembourg. In each race, the Telenet UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup winner of this season captured the world title in front of big crowds. Wout Van Aert (Belgium) extended his world title in the Men Elite category on Sunday afternoon. “I really didn’t expect this. Last week I was a week without bike. It seemed like nobody believed in me. It wasn’t the best preparation. I just wanted to give full gas for one hour. It’s also a pity that bad luck is with Mathieu when he has a flat tire. Of course I couldn’t wait for that. I’m so happy with my second world title”, Van Aert said. Earlier on Sunday, Joris Nieuwenhuis (Netherlands) captured the title in the Men Under 23 category after completing a long solo ride in Bieles. “In the beginning I immediately felt good. I knew before the race that I was ready for it but you don’t know in such a race like this, so I’m really happy”, Nieuwenhuis said in the post-race flash interview.
In contrast to Saturday’s first race of the day, increasing temperatures and overnight rain morphed the icy course into a sloppy mud challenge with a hard frozen subsoil on Sunday morning. Combining puddles of ice water and mud with the multiple steep climbs and drops in Bieles would benefit the stronger riders on Sunday. Countless rock surfaced due to the thaw and caused trouble in the Men Elite race on Sunday afternoon.
Young cyclo-cross stars Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands) were the top favourites in the Men Elite category. Van Aert won the 2016 world title and Van der Poel was the 2015 world champion. The latter blasted away during the opening lap. While he opened up a gap in front, the mechanical problems started. Tom Meeusen (Belgium) broke his frame on the first ascent. Kevin Pauwels (Belgium) was the only rider who kept up with Van der Poel but he punctured away from the front. Van Aert struggled to find his rhythm early on and he was distanced by fifteen seconds after the opening lap. Van Aert and Michael Vanthourenhout (Belgium) started a chase on Van der Poel in the second lap but Vanthourenhout dropped away when he flatted. The race leader started struggling too, flatting in the second and third lap. On each occasion, he was lucky enough to be at close distance from the pit area. During the fourth lap, Van Aert bridged up with Van der Poel and halfway the race it seemed like an exciting duel was coming up. The rest of the pack was at long distance, with Michael Vanthourenhout being the first chaser at more than forty seconds. Both leaders punctured in the fifth lap. Van Aert punctured for the first time just before the pit area and lost a few metres on Van der Poel. Just before the finish, Van der Poel punctured too and that turned out to be the decisive moment in the race. The first pit area was far away and by the time Van der Poel picked up a new bike he was trailing Van Aert by more than twenty seconds. Van Aert put in the fastest lap of the race with 7:30, averaging 24 km/h. From there, the duo no longer had mechanical problems but the race was decided.
Van Aert captured his second world title, finishing 44 seconds ahead of Van der Poel. Pauwels was third at 2:09 from the winner. He had a big gap over Lars van der Haar (Netherlands) and Corné van Kessel (Netherlands), Laurens Sweeck (Belgium) and Michael Boros (Czech Republic).
Joris Nieuwenhuis (Netherlands) was one of those strong riders. The Telenet UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup winner already took away all hope for glory from his rivals in the opening lap of the race in the Men Under 23 category. On Sunday morning he surged away halfway the opening lap and quickly collected an insurmountable lead. Strong Nieuwenhuis deployed great technical skills and brutal power on the slippery course. His opening lap was completed in 7:31, by far the fastest lap of the race. The 20 year-old kept the pace high and after nearly 54 minutes of racing he captured a more than deserving gold medal.
He’ll be wearing the rainbow jersey throughout the year in this category. Behind Nieuwenhuis, the battle for the remaining podium spots was only decided at the finish line. Italian champion Gioele Bertolini and Belgian riders Nicolas Cleppe and Thijs Aerts dealt well with the difficult circumstances during the first half of the race but then started struggling. Bertolini and Aerts crashed a few times halfway the race. Then, the cold and a flat tire got the better of Bertolini, who faded back to seventh place. Also Cleppe and Aerts were confronted with punctures in the final laps. Felipe Orts Lloret (Spain) stayed out of trouble and powered forward in the final lap, capturing the first-ever Spanish medal in this category. He crossed the finish line with a one-handed wheelie at 1:23 from winner Nieuwenhuis.
Sieben Wouters (Netherlands) held off Aerts and joined his compatriot Nieuwenhuis on the podium in Bieles. Cleppe finished fifth. Defending champion Eli Iserbyt (Belgium) struggled with the cold in Luxembourg. The 19 year-old Belgian rider started good but after a couple of crashes he dropped out of the top-10, eventually finishing in seventeenth place.
Next year, the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships are held in Valkenburg, Netherlands.