There aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to describe Mathieu van der Poel’s cyclocross dominance this month, and his winning margins remained undiminished on the infamously muddy and treacherous course in Gavere. It took just five minutes for Van der Poel to break his rivals, riding away after the first run-up and never relenting.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) was the only rider to keep the world champion in sight as he jumped away but even he couldn’t make up the gap established in the opening salvos and settled for a distant second place.
A last lap battle for the final podium spot between Joris Nieuwenhuis (Baloise Trek) and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) provided the most late-race excitement, with Nieuwenhuis briefly getting away before Pidcock clawed his way back then leapt away to take third place as his rival suffered an apparent puncture.
“It was a super hard one today,” Van der Poel said. “The mud was pretty sticky and was harder and harder every lap also to control the bike. I was suffering at the end.”
When asked why he attacked so early, he explained, “It’s so difficult on a course like this to follow the wheel. It’s way better to ride in front and choose your own lines. The race was so hard it was better to find my own rhythm from the start.”
The ‘big three’ had to fight their way from the second and third rows as Lars van der Haar (Baloise Trek) claimed the holeshot. The Dutch champion led through the first series of turns as Van der Poel and Van Aert began working their way forward. Pidcock had a lot more work to do, coming back from 25th in the opening minute.
Joris Nieuwenhuis led through the muddy run-up, with Van Aert and Van der Poel heading to the forefront. Van Aert was first to remount but Van der Poel was close behind and soon shot past to take the solo lead just five minutes into the hour-long race.
At the end of the first lap, he had eight seconds on Van Aert with Nieuwenhuis heading back to the chasing group. By the second lap, the gap had blown out to 30 on Van Aert and Van der Haar had joined Nieuwenhuis in the first chase. Pidcock had worked his way up to 12th but had 1:17 to make up to find the front of the race.
On the third lap, Van der Poel was so far ahead he was already lapping riders, having to shove poor Felipe Nystrom of Costa Rica aside before coming through the end of the lap 42 seconds on Van Aert. Pidcock had worked his way up to seventh but the gap had to the world champion had only come down by one second.
By lap five, Van der Poel’s lead stabilised as his tyres churned up the grass and mud sending a spray of detritus in his wake. Van Aert matched his pace, still chasing at 41 seconds.
The effort in the thick mud began to wear even on the ‘big three’, as Van der Poel crashed and then Pidcock stacked it in a turn. It hardly mattered in the end, as a visibly suffering Van Aert came through still 43 seconds behind. Pidcock got around Van der Haar into fourth but still had 1:13 to make up.
By the bell lap, Pidcock had made it up to Nieuwenhuis and set off in pursuit of the final podium spot.
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