More Cyclo-Cross Joy for van der Poel, Setback for van Aert

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

The surprising result in Thursday’s X20 Trofee cyclo-cross race at Koksijde wasn’t the dominant victory by Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceunick). After all, he hasn’t lost a ‘cross race all winter, making it nine overwhelming victories in a row in what looks like an unstoppable march to the World Championships at Tabor in February. It was the third place of fellow cyclocross titan Wout van Aert (Visma – Lease a Bike), who saved a podium place with a late rally but could not catch the young rider who is slowly turning into his nemesis, Pim Ronhaar (Baloise Trek).

And yet it started out so promising for van Aert who took the lead early on the first of seven laps and was able to stay with van der Poel for a while when he made his, now trademark, burst into the lead. But van Aert soon took his foot off the pedals, allowing Ronhaar to take up the futile chase of the superior van der Poel. By the end of lap 1, the Dutchman’s lead was 0:07 over Ronhaar, with van Aert at 0:13.

The top three remained stable until the middle of lap 3 when van Aert appeared to encounter difficulties dealing with the race’s combination of deep mud and wet sand and he lost ground on the leaders, falling to fifth place, behind Lars van der Haar (Baloise Trek) and Gianni Vermeersch (Alpecin-Deceuninck). At the end of lap 4, Ronhaar trailed van der Poel by 0:31, with van Aert at 1:13 and 0:09 out of third place.

He began his comeback on lap 5 and was able to regain third place by the start of the final lap, 1:35 behind the leader and only 0:24 behind Ronhaar, who had collided with the Belgian in the ‘cross at Hulst on December 30, causing him to fall and lose ground he was never able to regain for a podium finish in that race. The 22-year-old Ronhaar finished third in that race and, with his second-place finish at Koksijde, 1:20 behind van der Poel, has established himself as a future star and a current threat to the established order. Van Aert finished third, at 1:43. The other member of the so-called Big Three, Tom Pidcock, continues to suffer from bad luck this winter and was forced to skip the race due to illness.

Tom Pidcock
Pidcock has suffered a string of crashes and breakdowns this winter. © Profimedia

Again, the winner seemed matter-of-fact about his largely uncontested victory. “I went to the front at the end of lap 1 and I did two really good sand sections, and I immediately had a really nice gap,” he said after the race. “I tried to make my own pace from the start because it’s a super-tough race. It’s difficult to recover with the mud section between the sand sections, which makes it a really hard course.”

As for van Aert, he is clearly sticking to the plan of using the cyclocross races as preparation for his road racing goals, which include the spring Classics and the Giro d’Italia. Contrary to what has been surmised, he will not be racing for the GC in the Giro.

“The focus will be exclusively on achieving stage victories,” he recently told Gazzetta dello Sport. “We don’t have a real classification rider in our Giro team. I am aiming for stage victories myself, perhaps more than one, but I don’t know yet which days I will concentrate on. I’m certainly looking forward to starting on May 4. The route of the opening stage is already in my head. Challenging climbs and an arrival in Turin immediately follow. And then we also have a time trial in the first week.”

Naturally, he is aware of the challenge he is facing in two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar. “I’m curious to see how it will go, also because there will be a rider of Tadej Pogačar’s calibre at the start,” he said. “We’ll see but the first week could be for me.”

Van Aert added that he also regards the Giro as a preparation for the Paris Olympics. “The Giro will be an important training ground to best prepare for the Olympics,” he said. “After the Giro, which ends on May 26, I will have a month to complete my preparation.” He is scheduled to ride in the Olympics ITT on July 27 and the road race on August 3.