Enjoy the World Cup Valkenburg gallery and race report below. (Word edits by Nicholas Lemke)
Each year, the first World Cup feels like the first day of school. The sun is still shining but the leaves are beginning to fall. You are happy to see old friends and, with luck, meet a few new. You start with a clean slate, and after a busy summer, you feel you are capable of anything. The analogy isn’t one hundred percent accurate, as most riders have completed a couple of races before the first World Cup; however, this is the first time that the Belgians, and those who predominantly race in Belgium, meet with racers from all over the world.
I love the sport’s Belgian heritage and only a few crowds can match the enthusiasm of theirs. Yet, seeing riders from numerous countries, who don’t normally compete at Superprestiges and Bpost Bank Trofees, gives hope that the internationalization of cyclocross will not remain an empty promise.
The day kicked off with the juniors’ race, which was won by Belgian National Champion Eli Iserbyt. He pulled away from the field early on and it soon became clear that Max Gulickx and Johan Jacobs were only fighting for the remaining podium places. Interestingly, this became the template for the other classifications throughout the day, as well.
The U23 race brought the first face-off between Mathieu van der Poel and the rest of the U23 field, who haven’t ‘upgraded’ to the elite men in the other series’ as van der Poel has. As I prepared for this race, I remembered how the race unfolded last year: van der Poel lost a lot of time right off the bat due to a tussle after the start, yet he managed to fight his way back onto the third step of the podium.
Just like last year – or last week, for that matter – Michael Vanthourenhout attacked from the start and established a 20-30 second gap to his chasers. He was pursued by van der Poel and it seemed only a matter of time before he would be caught and left behind. Surprisingly, though, van der Poel faded after the second lap and ended up finishing a minute and a half behind the lanky Belgian.
In the first few laps, one rider was missing from the mix: current World Champion, Wout Van Aert. “In the first half of the race, I wasn’t feeling great and also my tyres were a little bit too soft. I changed to tyres with higher pressure and went a bit better but it only started to feel better in the second half of the race. In the last two laps I gave everything I had to finish second. I managed to do that but I wasn’t feeling great” he explained later.
The collarbone injury might still be an issue.
Despite the difficulties of van der Poel and Van Aert, nothing should be taken from Vanthourenhout, who had a remarkable race. Winning at Ronse without his major rivals seemed like an easy win, but his World Cup ride proved that Ronse wasn’t a fluke.
The women’s race was preceded by a poignant, one minute silence to remember Annefleur Kalvenhaar who died in a race accident earlier this year. The riders honoured her memory by removing their helmets for a minute of silence.
An early attack by Pavla Havlikova faded quickly and in the first two laps a handful of riders, including Helen Wyman, Sophie de Boer, Sanne Cant, Ellen van Loy and Nikki Harris were leading the race. The notable exception, of course, was Katie Compton, who had yet another bad start. “I got stuck in traffic and then my rear mech got tangled up with someone’s bike on one of the steep uphills” said Compton, who was forced to chase from far back in the field.
I’m used to having a bad start, so I just had to be patient, I didn’t panic, I was just frustrated with myself that I made my job that much harder.
Meanwhile, at the front, Wyman had things under control, but was unsure what was happening behind her. “Katie was nowhere to be seen and I was like: what do I do now? I started to shake off people but then she came past. I managed to follow her wheel for about a hundred meters, but then she was off.”
Third placed de Boer felt good at the beginning of the race, but the technical descents and the hot weather forced her to race a bit more conservatively. That didn’t mean that she didn’t give it her all, as she finished the race absolutely exhausted. Upon crossing the finish line, she was so out of breath that she could barely ask her mum to take her bike.
The elite men’s race started nervously and Jonathan Page’s rear mech hanger fell victim; his short run to the pits meant his race was essentially over before it even started.
After a series of near misses, Lars van der Haar wanted to make sure that the gap he was building from the first seconds was going to last. “I wanted to make half a minute [gap] quick and I got that, then it was 40 seconds and I was still riding a really hard pace but I was trying not to kill myself. Yet the gap was still going up and I knew this was going to be good, so I just rode my pace and I knew that if needed, I could ride a little bit harder.” Riding in front of a home crowd was also helping van der Haar during the race.
The last three laps were amazing, I was really enjoying it. In the last lap, I was even getting goosebumps.
But riding harder was never necessary for van der Haar. The real race unfolded behind him, where a strong and ever-changing group formed. From early on, Tom Meeusen was the main protagonist and the most motivated to close the gap, though Kevin Pauwels was not far behind. Gianni Vermersch was there early, but faded. Klaas Vantornout and Philip Walsleben joined in as well with Thijs van Amerongen and Corne van Kessel riding not far behind. This was an unusually big group near the front, rarely seen at this level. They were constantly exchanging punches and were evenly matched until the last lap. Realizing they weren’t going to catch van der Haar, the group collectively sat up which allowed van Kessel to join them. “I closed the gap to the front group and that was amazing. Tom Meeusen nodded me to go when I could and go for the podium. I was only expecting a top 10 finish, so this was amazing”, said an elated van Kessel.
Jeremy Powers also rode a great race. His best-ever World Cup finish was 7th at Tabor, back in 2012 and the conditions were ideal for him again today. He was aiming for a top ten finish, so ninth place was a great result, regardless of the effects of jet lag. “It was hot but I knew this was a good track, it didn’t rain a lot the previous days, it will be only a little mud, so generally, it would be a good race for me.”
This race won’t be Sven Nys’ favourite, as he suffered another DNF. Just like last year, mechanical problems mean that his chances of winning the overall World Cup title are already gone.
It was definitely eight more hard minutes than I’m used to, but you just have to dig deep.
There are no C1 races in Belgium the coming weekend, only the famous Nacht van Woerden night race on Wednesday and a number of C2 races in Germany and Switzerland, so there will be time to recover before the full on racing in November.
If you haven’t seen it yet, check out my coffee table album about the 2013/2014 cyclocross season. It is an exclusive chronicle of the 13/14 season on 240 high-quality, colourful pages.