Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) secured his fourth World Cup win in a row, soloing to the victory after a masterclass performance through the sand in Zonhoven.
The two teams that were dominant in numbers, Baloise Trek Lions and Crelan-Corendon, were no match for the World Champion, who made his winning move on the fourth of eight laps and extended his lead to 20 seconds as he crossed the line for the victory.
Joris Nieuwenhuis (Baloise Trek Lions) won the race for second place, gaining a small gap as he entered the finishing straight away, forcing Laurens Sweeck (Crelan-Corendon) to settle for third. Pim Ronhaar (Baloise Trek Lions) finished fourth.
Toon Vandebosch (Crelan-Corendon) was initially among the chase group racing for second but a crash on the final sand descent saw him lose time and finish fifth at 59 seconds back. World Cup leader Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) struggled with the pace during this round of the series and finished in sixth at 1:11.
“I’m super happy with how this part of the cyclo-cross season went, but I’m also happy that I can go to Spain and work on the form again,” Van der Poel said afterwards, admitting that he raced more conservatively at the start in Zonhoven due to the colder temperatures.
“I wanted to see how the race developed. It was cold and took me a while before I got into my own rhythm. It’s a tough race, and I didn’t want to waste too much energy today.“
“I’m always happy to win, of course. I felt OK, and I’m happy I can go and do more training.”
How it unfolded
The men’s field lined up under bitterly cold temperatures for the 12th round of the UCI Cyclocross World Cup in Zonhoven. Series overall leader Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) returned to competition after taking a week off to recover from a stomach illness and dehydration.
World Champion Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck), who had won the last three consecutive World Cups in Antwerp, Gavere and Hulst, was also on the start line but absent were his biggest rivals Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) and Wout Van Aert (Visma-Lease a Bike).
Joris Nieuwenhuis (Baloise Trek Lions) led the field onto the circuit, but he was quickly passed by Iserbyt and Laurens Sweeck (Crelan-Corendon) on the first descent through the deep sand as Van der Poel moved into fourth position.
A mechanical forced Cameron Mason (Cyclocross Reds) into the pits, but the British Champion didn’t swap bikes and instead pulled out of the race.
Nieuwenhuis pushed to the front and opened a small gap, soon joined by Van der Poel and Sweeck. The trio started the second lap with a gap of nine seconds on a group led by Iserbyt, Pim Ronhaar (Baloise Trek Lions) and Toon Vandebosch (Crelan-Corendon). Several seconds back, Thibau Nys (Baloise Trek Lions), Niels Vandeputte (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Emiel Verstrynge (Crelan-Corendon) tried to regain contact with the front of the race.
By the third lap, a front group of seven riders settled into a race rhythm: Baloise Trek Lions teammates Ronhaar, Nys and Nieuwenhuis, Crelan-Corendon teammates Sweeck, Verstrynge and Vandebosch, and the lone Van der Poel. By this point, Iserbyt struggled to keep up with the pace and ended up too far off the back of the leaders.
Van der Poel made his winning attack on lap four with a surge on the uphill sand section, opening his gap to 12 seconds when he reached the sand descent. He orbited the circuit with flawless skill through the sand, 25 seconds ahead of his nearest rivals, Nieuwenhuis, Sweeck, Ronhaar and Vandebosch.
By the end of the fifth (of eight) laps, Van der Poel started to catch lapped riders on the course and showed no signs of slowing down, extending his lead to 32 seconds on lap six.
There was no denying Van der Poel the victory in Zonhoven, and with two laps to go, the race for second place heated up between Baloise Trek Lions’ Ronhaar and Nieuwenhuis and Crelan-Corendon’s Sweeck and Vandebosch.
Vandebosch got his line wrong on the sand descent, which caused him to crash and lose time to the group and the balance to shift in favour of Baloise Trek Lions.
Teammates Rohnaar and Nieuwenhuis pushed the pace, forcing Sweeck to respond and chase after each surge. Nieuwenhuis led the trio through the final section of the circuit with Sweeck on his wheel and Rohnaar struggling to stay in contact.
Nieuwenhuis accelerated onto the finishing straight with a gap to secure second place ahead of Sweeck in third and Rohnaar in fourth.
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