This weekend Lars van der Haar won second round of the UCI World Cup Cyclocross series in Tabor, Czech Republic, nipping German Philip Walsleben in the sprint.
The World Cup standings are as follows:
|1||VAN DER HAAR Lars||NED||RABOBANK DEVELOPMENT TEAM||160|
|2||WALSLEBEN Philipp||GER||BKCP - POWERPLUS||135|
|3||PAUWELS Kevin||BEL||SUNWEB - NAPOLEON GAMES CYCLING TEAM||135|
|4||VANTORNOUT Klaas||BEL||SUNWEB - NAPOLEON GAMES CYCLING TEAM||115|
|5||AERNOUTS Bart||BEL||AA DRINK CYCLING TEAM||103|
|6||ALBERT Niels||BEL||BKCP - POWERPLUS||90|
|7||VAN AMERONGEN Thijs||NED||AA DRINK CYCLING TEAM||88|
|8||FRANZOI Enrico||ITA||SELLE ITALIA GUERCIOTTI||88|
|9||VAN KESSEL Corne||NED||TELENET - FIDEA||86|
|10||MURGOITIO REKALDE Egoitz||ESP||GRUPO HIRUMET TALDEA||76|
Watching him stalk Philip Walsleben like a cold-hearted killer was impressive. Van der Haar knew he had the sprint, so if he could stay on his young German counterpart, he almost surely had this one. Stalk he did, like a cougar following a young elk.
That's not to take away from Walsleben at all. But van der Haar was on a mission.
The first mission is surely the UCI World Cup, and with two wins to open the seven-event competition, he's in fantastic shape. Better still, the Heads of State haven't exactly mounted much of a challenge. Kevin Pauwels sits in a tie for second on points, so there's that. Pauwels was last year's UCI WC winner, and he's no doubt eager to defend that distinction, particularly since he's better at this than the two Belgian rounds. But Albert is 70 points back -- that's one win, versus a DNF for Lars -- and consistent riding by van der Haar should dispatch Albert. Missing entirely from the top ten is World Champion Sven Nys, and while I don't watch him closely enough to hear what he's said about his ambitions, my hunch is that he has a zillion obligations, and most of them suit him more than courses like Tabor and (shudder) Rome. So really, it's Lars vs Pauwels and his endless succession of poorly-timed mechanicals, with a bunch of unconvincing lurkers further back.
[And by unconvincing I mean that none of them have beaten Lars lately, except Klaas Vantournout, who is very convincing but is also more likely to expend his energies on the SuperPrestige competition he's currently leading.]
OK, so if Lars likes his courses a bit on the fast side, the question turns to what lies ahead. We see five events, and two of them looking quite favorable. Nommay, I don't recall much, but the map makes it look board-flat (probably pretty close to) and only some sand to spice things up. Van der Haar has no meaningful history there since it hasn't been run in the last two years. Rome has become the punching bag of dull UCI courses, but van der Haar finished sixth anyway.
- In Koksijde, van der Haar was a respectable 9th, which would be good for 44 points on this year's scale.
- In Namur, he was eighth (worth 46)
- In Zolder, he was 7th (worth 48)
All of the Belgian races remain substantial challenges for van der Haar, particularly Namur and Zolder, coming during CX Holy Week four days apart. But even with those races being tough ones, he still is likely to hold his own versus Walsleben and might not concede too much to Pauwels, who won Namur last year but was fifth in Zolder and 12th in Koksijde. As for Rome, I can only wonder if it wasn't much of a priority for anyone besides Pauwels and the Italian riders.
Next, there's the even more delicious prospect of the World Championships, which might be happening a little too soon in van der Haar's life to call him a favorite (he's likely to get stronger over time), but his prospects can't be dismissed. Being Dutch and riding on home soil probably helps (I wouldn't assume that but chances are good). And the course... well, here's the Hoogerheide course from last year's World Cup event. The World Championships website has few details about its course except that it'll be more or less the same as this.
End-of-season World Cup events aren't the best data point, even as single data points go. Believe it or not, Belgians don't view UCI events as necessarily the cream of the crop, at least the ones outside Belgium. To the extent the World Championships resemble these more internationally friendly courses, they don't play so much into the hands of the Belgian riders, who are accustomed to courses ranging from ridiculous to sublimely ridiculous. The beauty of Louisville was that, under the right conditions, it had plenty of nastiness to it, and when the right conditions showed up, the game was on. I still say they should've raced on Sunday through the partial flooding, but then Sven would have just won by even more. At least on Saturday, we had ourselves a close race.
Anyway, I digress. My point is, if you view last year's Hoogerheide event as any sort of foreshadowing of the World Championships, here are some results to chew on:
- Martin Bina
- Lars van der Haar, at 0.07
- Simon Zahner, at 0.11
- Sven Nys, at 0.22
- Niels Albert, at 0.27
Oh, and the previous year as a U23 van der Haar won in Hoogerheide.
Does this mean Little Lars is the favorite (or Bina, for that matter)? Nope. But it's up his alley. Which is much more than you can say for some other locales (e.g. Koksijde). This could be one big year for the little guy. And Cross, dogged at the elite level by the predictable dominance of the Belgians, will be the better for it.