On Saturday, the five-time ‘cross world champion took off from a small lead group on a muddy stretch of the fourth lap in the X20 Trofee Hamme. European champion Michael Vanthourenhout (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) was the only rider who could keep van der Poel in his sights but he never looked like threatening the winner, eventually finishing second, 16 seconds adrift. Vanthourenhout’s teammate Eli Iserbyt finished third, at 51 seconds.
Van der Poel said after the race that he was still feeling the intense training he had undergone in Spain earlier in the month. “I still feel tired from the tough training sessions in Spain but that’s not a problem,” he said. “We expected that in advance. It wasn’t bad but it lacked some freshness.” As for Vanthourenhout, he said he was delighted to be able to stay close to van der Poel. “It’s not easy to stay on the wheel [of Van der Poel], so I’m very happy.”
The next day, at the UCI World Cup Hoogerheide, the final World Cup race of the season, van der Poel left it late, pulling away from the leading group of riders on the eighth of nine laps. This time, only Thibau Nys (Baloise Trek Lions) was able to follow him, though a gap slowly grew between the two riders. Nys tried valiantly to keep pace with van der Poel until he ran out of legs and eased up. At the start of the final lap, van der Poel had a lead of 8 seconds over Nys, with a group of three riders at 17 seconds.
At the end, the winning margin was 5 seconds over Nys’s teammate Joris Nieuwenhuis, with another Baloise Trek rider, Pim Ronhaar, finishing third, at 9 seconds. The valiant Nys crashed on the final lap and finished fourth, with the same time as his teammate. Iserbyt finished fifth, also at 9 seconds, and will be crowned UCI World Cup champion for the 2023-24 season.
The race was marred by several crashes early on, with a double crash ahead of the first curve creating gaps in the peloton. Several crashes followed on lap 2, and soon, there were groups stretched out over the course. Van der Poel was content to remain five riders off the lead until the middle of the race when he made a few brief breakaway moves. When he made a serious move on lap 8, it was curtains for the competition.
“I felt okay but I had to do it in a slightly different way [than yesterday],” he told Eurosport after the race. “I’m good but after I attacked, I wasn’t as fresh as I was during the rest of the season. That’s normal, though, and it’s a good sign.” He went on to say that he expected a hard race in Tabor. “Last year was also a bit different. I only had one race the weekend before the Worlds and this weekend I raced yesterday and today, so it was a slightly different approach. I just need to rest, and then hopefully next week, I’ll have my best legs of the season.”
Barring a crash or other incident, it’s hard to see anyone threatening van der Poel’s quest for another world title – especially if, as he said, he wasn’t at his best at Hamme and Hoogerheide.