Mathieu van der Poel has beaten Wout van Aert to take his third Cyclocross World Championships title in a row.
Earlier in the race, it had looked like disaster for the Dutchman as he was upended over his handlebars through a muddy chicane, with Van Aert accelerating as he looked to capitalise.
The Belgian then punctured, however, with Van der Poel catching him and leaving him behind. From there, he continued to extend his advantage until the end, taking his third rainbow jersey in a row and fourth overall.
After Van Aert had crossed the line 37 seconds in arrears, Toon Aerts survived a final assault from Tom Pidcock to claim the bronze medal.
The Brit had hassled the Belgian throughout but couldn’t quite bridge the gap, the pair sprinting through the final section of the course but in the end running out of road.
How it happened
With Van der Poel and Van Aert lined up at the front, Pidcock quickly fought to get on terms as Van Aert leaned on the Brit as the pack entered the first corner.
As the riders strung out during the first lap, Van der Poel and Van Aert were already joined at the hip as they crossed the finish line for the first time, alone at the front of the race.
Van Aert then began to distance Van der Poel on the sand as the Dutchman was forced to dismount on the sand section, the Belgian battling to stay upright as he accelerated away.
Van der Poel was then upended on the grass section, coming through a muddy chicane too quickly, followed by another little slide on a further corner as Van Aert powered on ahead. 15 seconds was the gap as they enter the third lap. Behind, Pidcock had got onto the back of a Belgian group led by Eli Iserbyt, half a minute in arrears.
Van der Poel was running once more as Van Aert pedalled through the end of the sand section. The gap beginning to close slightly as Van der Poel lopped a couple of seconds off.
Within half a lap he had closed it, then quickly leaving Van Aert in his wake. The reason soon became clear, Van Aert had punctured.
That lap from Van der Poel was the quickest of the race so far, at 7-11, Van Aert hopping into the pit lane to pick up a new bike.
Pidcock was still nestled within the group of Belgians, 50 seconds back. On the sand section of the fourth lap, the Brit attacked the group, looking to chase down Toon Aerts, the Belgian in between the Brit and the front two.
Van Aert was now nine seconds behind Van der Poel, the Dutchman still in his sights. Up the bridge, Van der Poel pulled his foot out of the pedal, another slight wobble for the defending champion.
The gap was eight seconds with four laps to go, with Aerts a further 35 seconds back and Pidcock breathing down his neck.
Van der Poel’s advantage was gradually increasing as he crossed the line with three laps to go as Pidcock halved his disadvantage to Toon Aerts to just four seconds.
Onto the sand once more and Van der Poel had ditched his sunglasses, not needing them on the beach at this time of year, as Pidcock briefly made the junction to Aerts.
Van Aert was now losing time on both the bridge and the sand sections as his shoulders began to roll, perhaps paying for his efforts earlier when he thought he could distance the Dutchman prior to the unfortunate puncture. Pidcock was also losing ground slowly to Aerts in the battle for bronze.
The gap was now 22 seconds as Van Aert used the advertising boards to pull himself through the corners, slipping slightly in the mud. Pidcock was also just hanging in there into the penultimate lap.
There was another bike change for Van Aert as he continued to drift backward in the wake of Van der Poel, the Belgian grimacing from the effort.
Behind, Laurens Sweeck was hunting down Pidcock, who had fallen back from the pursuit of Aerts.
Van der Poel took the bell for the final lap, Adri van der Poel spotted by television cameras in the pit stop watching on – Van Aert now half a minute back.
The Dutchman sailed across the line to claim a third win in three years at the Worlds. Van Aert’s head hanging low as he came in 37 seconds later.
Pidcock wouldn’t give in even as his gap to Aerts went out to 17 seconds in the final lap, chomping his way through the sand and forcing Aerts to sprint the final section of the course, but Pidcock couldn’t quite close the gap to the bronze medal.
Elite Men’s Cyclocross World Championships 2021 – Ostend, Belgium
1. Mathieu van der Poel (Ned), in 58-57
2. Wout van Aert (Bel), at 37 seconds
3. Toon Aerts (Bel), at 1-24
4. Tom Pidcock (GBr), at 1-37
5. Laurens Sweeck (Bel), at 2-05
6. Michael Vanthourenhout (Bel), at 2-14
7. Eli Iserbyt (Bel), at 2-18
8. Quinten Hermans (Bel), at 2-23
9. Lars Van der Haar (Bel), at 2-41
10. Joris Nieuwenhuis (Ned), at 3-15