Can one really be BACK if one was always HERE?
A bit philosophical, yes, but this fall, a one-episode gag on the Media Pit has turned into a question of deeper cyclocross philosophy.
Although the season has been short thus far—and we really have no idea how long it’s going to last—Lars van der Haar has managed to catch astute fans’ attention with his cyclocross performances thus far. Personally, after a 4th-place finish at Polderscross, I noted it was good to see the man known as LvdH back in the mix competing for the podium.
Then, after Van der Haar’s third-place at the slag-heap mountain of Beringen, I posed the query, is Lars van der Haar back?
What was meant as a playful question turned into more of a statement the following week when Van der Haar scored another podium finish at Superprestige Ruddervoorde while giving Toon Aerts a run for his money as the Top Lion.
After that race, I had just assumed it was a foregone conclusion that Van der Haar was officially back because, if I am being honest, it has felt like Van der Haar has not necessarily been the podium-seeking force we might have expected him to be at this point in his career. After listening to last week’s episode, a friend of the show chimed in on social media to suggest that perhaps Van der Haar cannot be back because he never went anywhere.
Becca, like myself, is a credentialed scientist, so I figured the only was to assess Van der Haar’s BACKness was to go to the data and see what the numbers have to say. Armed with the Cross Metrics advanced statistics (you can read a quick refresher here) we developed last fall, I sought to divine a scientific answer to that philosophical question, was Van der Haar always here, or is there a there for him to be back from?
Definitely HERE at a Young Age
Lars van der Haar came into cyclocross at kind of an interesting time. In a way, one could argue he started the European cyclocross youth movement before, you know, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert.
After a solid campaign as an 18-year-old Junior, Van der Haar graduated to the U23s at the start of the 2009-10 season and capped that campaign with a 10th-place at Worlds. Relatively normal stuff for a first-year U23 and nothing too head-turning. Then, the following two seasons, Van der Haar won the U23 World Cup overall and Worlds two straight years, narrowly beating Mike Teunissen at Sankt Wendel in 2011 then winning again in Koksijde the following year.
With one year of U23 eligibility left, Van der Haar did something rare that has been more common since, with riders such as Van der Poel, Van Aert, and recently, Ceylin Alvarado and Tom Pidcock do and skip their senior year of U23s to race Elites. Like Alvarado and Pidcock in Switzerland, Van der Haar’s decision was validated when took third at Louisville Worlds behind the famed battle between Sven Nys and Klaas Vantornout.
Van der Haar scored that bronze by entering Louisville Worlds on a hot streak that his Cross Metrics would have belied. His OPP (On Podium Percentage) was only 26% for the season, but he entered Worlds on a roll after winning Elite Dutch Nationals and Cyclocross Rucphen and finishing second at the Hoogerheide World Cup. Like an NCAA team that makes a deep tournament run with a roster of freshmen and sophomores, Van der Haar’s results something special was in store for the young Dutch budding star.
The next season, 2013-14, Van der Haar showed his late run was no fluke. He won six races, won the World Cup overall, and turned in an OPP of 43% at a time when guys such as Sven, Klaas, Niels Albert, and Francis Mourey were still racing.
The 2014-15 season marked the arrival of ones Van der Poel and Van Aert on the Elite scene, so it would only be natural to expect Van der Haar’s Cross Metrics to cool off. However, Van der Haar had his best season yet as a pro, at least according to the yet-to-be-invented Cross Metrics!
Spoiler alert, after a mid-2010s peak, Van der Haar’s advanced metrics fell off. One could argue that it is partly due to the arrival of ones Van der Poel and Van Aert to the Elite scene during the 2014-15 season. The still-young Dutch rider scored an OPP of 52% and had a WAPP (Wide-Angle Podium Percentage) of 87%. Those numbers were accentuated by 5 wins and another bronze at Tabor Worlds. Although the youth movement that would redefine the sport of cycling was afoot, Van der Haar was still on the upswing as a second-year Elite.
The first year of MvdP and WvA would prove to be Van der Haar’s high-water mark from a Cross Metrics standpoint, but he still had a solid campaign in 2015-16. Van der Haar scored 4 wins and registered an OPP of 45% and a WAPP of 68%. Perhaps more importantly, he got his third Elite Worlds podium when he finished second behind Van Aert in Zolder at 2016 Worlds.
A Big Setback
Cycling, and cyclocross in particular, can be a cruel sport for those who suffer setbacks. We have seen riders suffer injuries and never seem to be able to return to the level they were once at. Van der Haar fell victim to such a cruel fate at a time when his career was still very much on the upswing.
Five days after finishing third at Koppenberg in 2016, Van der Haar suffered a torn left rectus femoris muscle (a quad muscle that attaches to the hip; I had to look it up too) at Superprestige Ruddervoorde. He would go on to miss the next month and a half of racing as he recouped from the injury. Van der Haar still recovered admirably, winning a shocker at the Hoogerheide World Cup (the only non-Mvdp or WvA World Cup win that season) and finishing fourth at Bieles Worlds. However, not surprisingly given the injury, his OPP dropped to 30% and his WAPP to 48%.
In what would be a trend over the next few years, Van der Haar also got uncharacteristically inconsistent. A Cross Metric called the 80% Rule sort of defines a rider’s upper and lower bounds, results-wise. In other words, what are the upper and lower limits that 80% of a rider’s results fall in between? The tighter the spread, the more consistent the results.
For the three seasons proceeding his injury, Van der Haar’s 80% Rule spreads were 1 – 7.2, 1 – 6.0, and 1 – 7.0. In 2016-17, his 80% Rule spread jumped to 1.2 – 17.8. He also had 4 “Bad Results,” which are finishes 5 places or worse than his median finish. For comparison, he had just 5 such “Bad Results” the previous 3 years combined.
No Longer HERE
Heading into the 2017-18 season, it seemed Van der Haar’s career was at a crossroads (pun not intended, but hey, it works!). He had returned from injury and gotten a great result at Bieles Worlds. At the same time, he was 26 at a time when the other stars of the sport were like barely 21, and let’s be honest, we were kind of referring to him as “Old Man Van der Haar.”
Van der Haar responded with a first three months of the season where he was again at the top of his game. Through the end of November, Van der Haar had 2 wins, an OPP of 56% and a WAPP of 81%. And this was during a season where Van der Poel and Van Aert were racing full cyclocross campaigns!
Then, after the World Cup in Zeven, something seemingly inexplicable happened. From then on, it’s like an 11th at World Cup Zeven and a 7th at Flandriencross sent him into a second-half funk that does not really do justice to the word funk. In the 17 races after December 1, Van der Haar’s OPP plummeted to 6%. In the second half of that season, he also had 7 finishes outside the Top 10, which represents 41% of his starts during that period. In a seeming instant, Van der Haar had gone from a borderline topper to barely a middler.
From a Cross Metrics standpoint, Van der Haar’s 2017-18 second half from hell continued into the two most recent seasons. In 2018-19, his OPP dropped to 18% and in 2019-20 it was even lower at 17%. During both seasons, Van der Haar maintained a WAPP just barely above 50%. The Dutch rider was still a sub-topper, scoring a median finish of 5 both seasons, but he had 12 finishes across two seasons outside the Top 10.
The Van der Haar who had been HERE as recently as mid-November 2017 was officially THERE, and as the 2020 season lurched in uncertainty and Van der Haar celebrated his 29th birthday, his best racing days seemed behind him.
Van der Haar’s BACK
Look, I’ll be honest. I’ve always liked Lars van der Haar. When I had the chance to interview him in my journalmalism days, he was an affable, engaging guy (who may or may not have supreme mastery of English swear words), and I always cheered for him to the extent a media person can. As we noted during our season-long discussion of the Sauce v. Lion battle of 2019-20 (aka Eli v. Toon), we were all kind of invested in another Lion (say, Lars!) stepping up to help his teammate Toon Aerts.
If you asked me how Van der Haar had been racing in recent years, I probably would have described results similar to the end of his 2017-18 season—not a factor and really barely even sub-topper caliber. This Cross Metrics analysis has showed things were not that bad, but perhaps compared to the potential he showed as recently as early 2017, it seemed Van der Haar was just not the factor he once was.
It was against that backdrop, that while our benevolent blog overlord Bill Schieken was joking about Thibau Nys almost chasing down Van der Haar during Polderscross Kruibeke, I noted, “Hey, it’s good to see Lars back on the Wide Angle Podium.”
For the record, Lars did not let the coach’s kid catch him.
After another WAP finish at Gieten, Van der Haar had his best result of the season, finishing third at the Beringen King of the Slag Heap race. It was after that race, that I kind of kicked off the whole Is Lars van der Haar Back? gag.
I know this is subjective, but hey, I am a blogger and not a journalist, but not only was Van der Haar’s result good, but he looked good in getting that result. He seemed to be riding strong and had a bit of swagger that we really have not seen from Old Man Van der Haar in a number of years.
And by golly if Van der Haar did not do it again at Ruddervoorde, scoring a third-place finish for the second-straight race. Not only that, but Van der Haar was in the mix during the first half of the race, giving Toon Aerts a friendly face when squaring off against Iserbyt, Laurens Sweeck, and Michael Vanthourenhout in the Lion v. Sauce battle. With Aerts on an off-day, Van der Haar even took up the task of trying to chase Iserbyt in an ill-fated attempt to slow the Sauce en route to his eventual victory.
If I am again being honest, I started writing this blog post before Saturday’s Koppenbergcross, and I was admittedly pretty nervous about bad result juju afflicting Van der Haar and ruining the entire premise. But you know what, my trepidation was turned to validation that Van der Haar is, indeed, BACK.
Backstreet’s back, BACK. Back in Black, BACK. Back in the Saddle, BACK. Back in the High Life again, BACK. Back … You get the picture.
Van der Haar scored his best finish since his silver at Rucphen on December 1, 2019 with a silver medal on the famed cobbles of the Koppenberg. Not only that, Van der Haar beat out his teammate Aerts and finished as the first non-Toon top Lion since the Zolder World Cup last December.
And since Cross Metrics have formed the backbone of this entire post, although the sample size is only 6 races, Van der Haar’s CM’s support his claim to BACKness. Thus far, Van der Haar has an OPP of 50% and a WAPP of 83%, with his only disappointing result being a 7th-place finish in the first race of the season. If Van der Haar can keep these numbers going through whatever proves to be the rest of the season, he will again be at a level of performance that rivals the best of his career.
Predictions for the future aside, what is clear is that Van der Haar is back on a form we have not seen from him in years, so whether it be by the Media Pit Gimmick test or the Cross Metrics, Lars van der Haar is officially BACK.