Just before the Elite race began, tweets and stories akin to this one began to circulate.
@WoutvanAert apparently on old green Michelin tires from Niels Albert's shed - Nys: "not rolling as well but more grip"— Brecht Decaluwé (@caluweski) January 29, 2017
An interesting piece of information, but nothing more than that, or so it seemed. However, those green tyres were a hugely important element in Van Aert's retention of his rainbow stripes on the slippy, wet, freshly unfrozen Bieles course. Mathieu van der Poel, who was the early aggressor, looking well capable of beating his rival, flatted four times on pieces of the gravel hidden in puddles and underneath the mud. Even he was not treated the worst by the Luxembourg course — Gianni Vermeersch had five punctures, in addition to a broken drivetrain. Laurens Sweeck and Lars van der Haar both needed new tyres six times. Fifth place Corné van Kessel and third placed Pauwels suffered thrice. How many punctures did Van Aert have? Just the one.
It's a great shame that it was purely machine-related issues which decided the winner of the race, because it was set to be an extremely good one. Somewhat unusually, Van Aert had a poor start, riding the majority of the first lap around seventh or eighth position, while Van der Poel shot away immediately. He was the first man to the opening corner, and attacked quickly, Pauwels trying to keep up. Tom Meeusen was the race's first casualty — he retired in its first minute due to (you guessed it) mechanical issues. Van der Poel continued to pad his lead in the racing opening stages and had a substantial lead over a chase group (Pauwels had by this point suffered his first puncture) including Van Aert, and some toiling Belgian team mates.
Van Aert soon dropped these team mates, and focused on catching up to his rival alone. As the laps ticked by, he inched his way closer to the Dutchman, who had three punctures right in front of the pits in three consecutive laps. The third of these allowed Van Aert to catch up, and for a ten-minute period it looked like we had a real race on our hands. Van Aert looked stronger on the running sections, but on the very technical parts near the end of the lap, Van der Poel seemed able to put time into the Belgian. However, one the finish straight of lap five, Van der Poel had his fourth puncture. There was half a lap to ride if he was to reach the pits, and Van Aert spotted his chance, disappearing off in front and gaining twenty seconds. Van der Poel would not reach the front of the race again, as Van Aert sprinted away for his second world title in succession. He would beat Van der Poel by forty-three seconds.
Behind them, there was a real fight for third place. Michael Vanthourenhout occupied the position for a while, but he also suffered misfortunes and slipped back, leading to a scrap for the position between Lars van der Haar and Kevin Pauwels. Pauwels had fewer punctures (the word of the day, eh?) and won out eventually. Notably, he finished two minutes down on Van Aert. Only six riders finished less than four minutes down.
"It felt like no one believed my injury, but I really didn’t expect this," said the world champion.
"When Mathieu started I got a bit scared, he went so hard. And it took a really long time for me to catch him. And then my strategy was to not let him get in his rhythm. And in the end the difference was a flat tire, I know that. You know that when Mathieu is good, it’s impossible to catch his start. I know a lot of people don’t dare to ride with the tires I chose, because at the end you really have to work for it. But they flat a lot less, I knew that. I’m not ashamed of this title. i have to give all the credit to Niels for the choice in materials. That was all his thing. I had to search for three sets, but we found them."
Van der Poel was distraught on the podium and in studio. Crying, he lamented "It’s really not fun to lose a race like this, this is probably the biggest disappointment in my life. We never thought about different materials. The worlds is just a race like any other, this was just bad luck. I’m really disappointed." Van Aert agreed about his rival's misfortune, adding "I just want to emphasize that I think it really is a shame that luck was the deciding factor."
Bad luck did play a part in deciding the day's victor, but good preparation made a bigger one. The Belgian team was clearly better outfitted and prepared for the race: all the supplies in Niels Albert's garage were used in getting their man back into the rainbow jersey. It doesn't even end there: Tom Meeusen, a man who could be generously considered a rival of Van Aert's, was helping him with the descents in training. It's clear that the Belgian side were better prepared for all the scenarios that could and did occur — the Dutch team apparently never thought of using different tyres. While luck of course was a huge factor — Van der Poel could have avoided punctures on another day, I don't doubt — the organisation of the Belgian team won them the world championship.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands took home the consolation prize of the under-23 race. Joris Nieuwenhuis took off early on with Dane Simon Andreassen (whose hopes were dashed by two punctures, an early sign of what was to come), left him behind and went on to win the title by an amazing minute and twenty-three seconds over Spanish (yes, Spanish) rider Felipe Orts.