Van Aert Conquers Mud and Rivals in 2023 Cyclo-cross Debut

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

Wout van Aert began his 2023-24 cyclo-cross season with a relatively easy victory in the rain and mud of the Exact Cross in the Belgian town of Essen over the weekend. Despite complaining about his lack of form before the race kicked off, the 29-year-old three-time cyclocross world champion won the race by a hefty 1:36 margin over fellow Belgian Jens Adams with another compatriot, Thijs Aerts, coming third at 2:51.

It is van Aert’s fifth victory in the Belgian race, which is traditionally dominated by home riders who have now won 24 of the last 26 editions of the race. The two they failed to win in that stretch were won by – you guessed it, Mathieu van der Poel of the Netherlands.

This was van Aert’s first race since the road season ended and, in his words, “I don’t think I have ever started the ‘cross winter as badly as I have now.” He told Wielerflits, “After [my] first ‘cross training, I was more frightened than actually looking forward to [the race]. I rode the ‘cross bike one more time this week, but certainly not enough to reach a good level. I am much less in shape than I am used to [being] at the start of my ‘cross winter, but it was a conscious choice to take a more relaxed approach this winter.”

The Jumbo-Visma rider had announced earlier this year that he would reduce his winter schedule to save his energy for the spring Classics. He reiterated those plans in a pre-race interview with Sporza, doubling down on his plans to opt out of both the Belgian and world championships. “If the BC had been held closer to the Christmas period, I would have liked to participate but now it doesn’t fit [in],” he said. “The world championships are again at the beginning of February. I have already made the World Cup–spring [Classics] combination but now I choose something else.”

Wout van Aert
Wout van Aert began his 2023-24 cyclocross season with a relatively easy victory. © Profimedia

As for the race itself, due to the rain and deep mud, there was almost as much running as cycling, as riders chose to dismount to traverse the worst sections. Van Aert’s ability to navigate several of those sections on the fourth of seven laps helped him open up a lead after it had taken him about half of the race to gauge his form and that of his rivals and to find his rhythm.

“I needed the first few laps to assess my form and assess the competition,” van Aert told journalists after his victory. “Every lap, the conditions got harder and harder… Then I found my rhythm, which allowed me to build up a lead. I struggled a bit at the end but that is not unusual on a course like this. I didn’t get an easy ‘cross [race] to start [the season] but the feeling was better than I expected. I am happy that I was able to please the crowd.”

He now heads to Spain for ten days of training, returning to face the challenging part of his winter schedule when he faces his arch-nemesis, Mathieu van der Poel, in the Exact Cross in Mol on December 22. That race was supposed to be the Dutchman’s first race of the season but he has now changed his schedule and will return to cyclocross six days earlier, at the X20 Trofee Herentals.

This is van Aert’s home race but he will be at the Jumbo-Visma camp in Spain. However, the third member of the cyclocross Big Three, Tom Pidcock, is scheduled to race at Herentals, so there should be sparks. Did van der Poel add the race because of van Aert’s performance at Essen and so to have a race under his belt when the two meet in Mol? We’ll never know but he sort of suggested as much, saying: “An extra competition hour ahead of the busy Christmas period can only be positive.”

Van Aert and van der Poel will also face each other in the UCI World Cup rounds in Antwerp, Gavere and Hulst, as well as in the Superprestige round at Heusden-Zolder on December 27.