Belgium's Wout Van Aert justifiably won the World Cyclocross Championships (men's Elite) today, but if you ask me what I'll remember about this day in 20 years, it's this unbelievable move right here by Dutch challenger Lars van der Haar:
Let's set the scene. Coming into the race, the entire Cyclocross season had been dominated at the top men's level by the two unstoppable 21-year-olds, Van Aert and eventually reigning world champion Mathieu van der Poel of the Netherlands. Van der Haar, only 24 himself, has seen his brilliant, youthful ascent to the sport's top rung hijacked by a couple blokes even younger and (alas) stronger than he. He knows this, but wasn't going down without a fight.
Things seemed to be falling into place Sunday for van der Haar, who had been riding his race all day and hoping for a chance should the two favorites falter. Eventually one of them did -- van der Poel, his teammate on the day, sparing van der Haar the awkwardness of tangling with a fellow Dutchman. It was probably the other moment I doubt any of us will forget, as van der Poel comes a-cropper on a greasy, bumpy uphill turn and wedges his goddamn foot into the front wheel of Van Aert's bike.
I can't tell you exactly what van der Haar was thinking about the sudden disappearance of the race's two strongest riders, but he proceeded to ride like the Cyclocross Gods were smiling down on him, opening up a 30 second gap on the entire field. Van der Poel fell away, for a variety of reasons, and nobody else could catch Little Lars... except Van Aert. Which happened, with two laps remaining. Van der Haar knew that his dream was slipping away, that Van Aert was the stronger rider in general, and that it would take something special to beat him. With half a lap to go, he knew he had nothing left to lose.
What happens then is what makes sport so great. Van der Haar, starts scraping for every advantage he can think of, taking every risk there is to steal the title from the Belgian and to put Belgian fans -- who were spitting at him and throwing beer when he was in the lead -- in their place. Being a phenomenal bike handler and a bit more experienced, Lars throws this move at Van Aert that, at the time, brought forth a torrent of profanity. Two top guys on a greasy, tricky course, at very high speed, fully on their limit and running out of energy on the closing lap. And van der Haar throws this one, in the first ten seconds of this clip (turn up the sound for Michel Wuyts' reaction).
Only a few things can happen on a move like this. One is that you get too much speed over the bumps on the course and go cartwheeling down the hill. Maybe even taking out Van Aert, in which case they'd be carrying away van der Haar's carcass later after angry Belgian fans had picked it clean. Another is that you hold it together over the bumps, but carry too much speed as the course bends left, and you go into or over the barriers. Both of those outcomes also make the highlight reel. But the one that happened is the one that should get the attention. Van der Haar executes a brilliant descent, defies the bumps, the lack of traction, Van Aert and anything resembling normal human fear to come past the Belgian and take the lead -- something that often can be a major psychological and tactical boost. If I attempted this, nine times out of ten I would crash so spectacularly that Rene Haselbacher would wince at the sight. And the tenth time I would get off and walk down. I'm not that stupid.
As the clip shows, in the end it only staved off the inevitable a bit longer, as Van Aert killed it -- and van der Haar's chances -- on the next climb. Lars screwed up a shift, and was back on his heels as Van Aert overtook him and sealed the win. Wout Van Aert earned the biggest victory of his career, at van der Haar's expense. But Larske earned something very precious too: a ton of respect for racing cyclocross like the sport was meant to be. He enters next season not as the favorite for top success, but as the Number One-ranked Badass of Cyclocross.