KOKSIJDE, Belgium (VN) — Despite blowing what momentarily looked like an insurmountable early lead, Dutch Under-23 racer Lars van der Haar continued to do what he has done so successfully for an entire season: win, netting his second straight U23 world title in the process. But thanks to a brilliant ride by Belgian Witse Bosmans, who was lifted by the enormous and enthusiastic crowds, the victory was far from easily won.
The race started under a heavy sky, threatening rain or snow that never fell, and by the time the field made the 90 degree turn off the road, van der Haar was in control. When the race backed up on the first big sand section, the defending champion attacked and immediately racked up a huge lead. As he turned on the power that propelled him to so many wins this season, pulling further and further away, the crowd’s despair was audible — but also premature. Behind him Bosmans was crawling back, and he reconnected with the orange-clad van der Haar when the Dutch rider bobbled a difficult sandy section and was forced to run. Bosmans, who excels in sandy terrain like the dunes here, stayed on the bike, and in a handful of pedal strokes it was a two-man race.
For the next several laps a veritable parade of riders attempted to reach the two leaders; Switzerland’s Arnaud Grand made contact briefly, but faltered in the sand and couldn’t close the gap that opened as a result. Dutch racer Mike Teunissen and Belgian Michael Vanthourenhout, who had clawed his way from to the top five by mid-race, both took turns as well. But only van der Haar’s Dutch teammate, Michiel van der Heijden, managed to bridge the gap, connecting with the leaders during the fifth of the race’s seven laps.
Now the three rode together and, despite the occasional bobble or brilliant move, until the final lap the race remained a stalemate. As the leaders played their high-speed tactical games, France’s Arnaud Jouffroy was closing in from behind. After a problem with his chain left him dangling in 26th place after his first lap, the French rider uncorked a series of blazing laps — including the day’s fastest — and simply blasted his way into reach of the leaders just as things were heating up on the final lap of the day.
And the heat Jouffroy was riding towards was blazing, brilliant, white hot race action, perhaps the most exciting Europe has seen this season.
With a relatively short finishing stretch and little room to maneuver late in the race, each of the three leaders sought desperately for opportunities to create the gap that would win them the race. Twice van der Heijden came around Bosmans and twice the Belgian rider made him pay, putting him hard into the barriers on the second big sand section of the lap. Twice van der Haar made major mistakes in the sand and recovered, retaking the lead and forcing Bosmans to redouble his efforts not to be dropped — and all this with Jouffroy closing fast from behind.
Finally, on the steep descent from the final section of sand, called X-Dune by the race organizers, van der Haar fell. For a second it appeared all was lost for the defending champion, and the crowds that lined the course went crazy with cries of, “Witse!”
But, almost miraculously, van der Haar landed on his feet, running at full speed, and almost instantly was back on his bike. Still, Bosmans now had control of the race, with van der Haar gapped and van der Heijden in ever increasing danger of being picked off by Jouffroy. But, inexplicably, Bosmans chose not to exploit his advantage. With just a few hundred meters to go, he looked back over his left and right shoulder, apparently unable to locate van der Haar, who was deep in a tuck, clinging to the Belgian’s wheel.
And van der Haar, who showed off his prowess for the lightning-quick come-from-behind win with a similar move at CrossVegas in September, flashed past Bosmans. By the time the two rounded the corner onto the pavement, all Bosman’s could muster was a frustrated swing of a fist, fully aware of how much had just slipped away from him as he watched van der Haar celebrate a few meters down the road.
“I know I missed an opportunity,” a rather philosophical Bosmans would tell reporters later. “I’m conscious of the mistake I made, and of how few opportunities you have to be in front of the race with 200 meters to go. But with Lars behind you, you just never know (the best strategy). All you can be sure of is that he’s going to race to win.”
Van der Haar, however, said it was not simply cleverness that allowed him to beat the popular Belgian rider. “Look,” he said in the post race press conference, “I was the fastest. Bosmans was strong in the sand, but I was faster everywhere else. I know my effort on the first lap cost me a lot, but it’s the combination of skills and speed and good judgement that makes the win.”
Bosmans countered that, whether or not the two were working together, the arrival of a teammate in the lead late in the race was a huge boost for van der Haar.
“It was crucial to the race that van der Heijden arrived at the end,” he told reporters. “Otherwise, some of those moves in the sand may have gone differently, and we may have had a different result or even a different group of three in the finale.”
Van der Heijden, meanwhile, said he was just looking for the best possible result.
“Catching Lars and Witse was pretty easy because I could follow their good tracks in the sand,” he said after holding off Jouffroy by a single second to take bronze. “You never know how the race is going to end, and maybe I could have had silver or gold on another day. But in the moment you can only look at each other and try for the best you can. So I’m satisfied.”
Behind the leaders, U23 national champion Zach McDonald was the top American finisher. McDonald bounced back from a botched start that left him stranded in 35th place to finish 12th on the day, picking up places nearly every lap.
Though disappointed not to crack the top ten, the University of Washington student said he was satisfied to show he can be a factor no matter where he starts the race.
“I thought I could either quit or keep going, so I decided to see who I could pick off on the first lap,” he said afterwards. “Then I just kept going from there, catching groups, and just never rested anywhere. I was alone for a bit in the second half and could ride all the sand sections, and picked up a lot of time there. I know I was riding well. A top ten would have been nice, but given where I started, it’s ok.”
Cody Kaiser, the only other American in the race, also managed to move up from a start that left him near 50th at one point to finish 38th.
The world championships continue tomorrow in Koksijde with both elite men’s and women’s races.