Only the strongest roadies can say the Koppenberg is not hard. For cyclocross racers going up it ten times in an hour, it is the Way of the Cross.
How hard was it? The winner, Mathieu van der Poel, extended his domination of the sport today with a narrow victory over Toon Aerts and Lars van der Haar. And yet, even the strongest of the strongest of the strong could barely function afterward. The Dutch champion wobbled to the top of the famous cobbled climb for the last time, but could not manage anything resembling a victory celebration. Instead, he turned the pedals maybe two extra times to get clear of the line, pulled over to the right, and collapsed on the road. Digging deeper than he ever has before, van der Poel lay on the ground just past the finish line for two solid minutes, desperately inhaling oxygen, as second-placed Aerts wobbled in next to him and went into his own puddle of misery. Rider after rider finished and came to a complete stop.
Moving the finish to the top of the Koppenberg positioned the cobbles to be the star of the day. The winding, rolling course spent much of its grass time on a descent, and with dry conditions it was a fast day in the field. But the cobbled climb demanded a heavy toll at the end of each lap, and the finish of every race saw the climb sort out the strongest from the rest.
Helen Wyman won the women’s race with a clear advantage over Katie Compton. The two rode closely with defending winner Jolien Verscheuren for much of the race, but as time wore on it was clear Wyman had the best legs for the final climb. Compton struggled on the bell lap to close the gap that Wyman had opened on the penultimate ascent, and Wyman repeated that feat not so much on the cobbles but on some small grinding uphill portions in the field, where she put Compton away for good. But the last meters on the road helped drive the point home.
In the U23 race, Tom Pidcock outsprinted Eli Iserbyt and Jens Dekker in the final meters for his third victory of the young season. Pidcock timed his final acceleration like a seasoned pro, coming around the other two who had gone maybe a bit too early, though Pidcock’s overall strength is becoming legend, so perhaps there was little to do to stop him.
For the elite men, Lars van der Haar put a bit of fear into van der Poel with his own cracking attack on the climb with four laps remaining. If nothing else, the leading foursome of them plus Aerts and Wout Van Aert were maybe taking it a bit too easy, with a large group threatening to pull them back. And the dry conditions made it a day that played to the little Dutchman’s skills. From there, van der Haar opened up a sizeable lead, only to be pulled back but for that effort to cause Van Aert to drop off. That left the final podium away and free to battle for the top step. All looked strong enough but van der Poel decided to take no chances with a final climb sprint and went full gas shortly after getting the bell, with van der Haar cracking a bit on one false flat, then finally Aerts as well.
But this is the image we will likely remember.