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European Cyclocross Champion Michael Vanthourenhout powered through atrociously muddy conditions for victory at Hexia Cross Gullegem with an impressive long-distance solo attack.
With over half the course still to race, the Pauwels-Sauzen Bingoal rider surged away from a chase group of four and then stayed away with no further challenges for his second victory of the season.
Second, around 25 seconds back, was tenacious lone counterattacker Cameron Mason (Cyclocross Reds), with Joran Wyseure (Crelan-Corendon) outpowering Thibau Nys (Baloise Trek Lions) in a thrilling, prolonged battle for third.
In the absence of standout names like Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers), Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Wout van Aert (Visma-Lease a Bike), Vanthourenhout, though, was the clear dominator on an ultra-demanding, old-school course where the omnipresent deep mud and multiple stretches of gloopy standing water quickly shredded the field.
“It wasn’t my best start, but I felt really good today,” Vanthourenhout said afterwards. “The women’s race before had made the course tougher to ride, and there wasn’t one line to follow but a lot of options. Finally, though, it was easier for me to ride alone, and that’s what I did.”
Nys made a good start in the atrociously muddy conditions, but the 68-man field was quickly scattered across the demanding terrain and Wyseure, Gianni Vermeesch and Felipe Orts then briefly veered clear.
Coming through the start/finish line and the only stretch of mud-free terrain on the entire course for the first time, Vanthourenhout and Nys regained contact with the leaders, but it was only deep into the second lap that a group of top favourites edged their way clear in any definitive fashion.
By the end of lap two, though, Nys, Wyseure and Vanthourenhout had eked out the briefest of gaps on Vermeersch and Lander Loockx and then little by little, the leading trio’s advantage began to broaden. At that point, Vanthourenhout, third in the same race last year, began to test his rivals with longer runs on some of the muddiest sections, and as specks of rain briefly began to fall, by the end of lap three, his advantage had begun to stretch to double digits, and a clear dominator of the course had finally emerged.
Vanthourenhout’s solo position on the front enabled him to pick clearer lines, a real advantage on such difficult terrain, while Mason and Vermeesch surged back into the game to make it a chase group of four. Mason then counter-attacked, but with a 20-second advantage for the Belgian on the Briton – with whom he already clashed for the win in the Europeans – holding steady on such a demanding course, it was always going to be difficult for Mason to recoup lost ground.
And so it proved as Vanthourenhout’s narrow but consistent lead never seemed to be under threat, enabling the Belgian to soak up the applause from his home crowd all the way through the last lap. Mason clinched a notable second, just as he had in the Europeans behind the same rider in Pontchateau, but just as in November, Vanthourenhout’s advantage on the rest of the field was never really in doubt.
“It was a hard one,” Mason said afterwards, “a bit of a time trial and not a good start, but it didn’t really matter because it was just a tractor race.”
“So I got myself together, worked my way through to the front. It was quite similar to the Europeans, by the time I got there, Michael had already got a gap, but that was for a reason – he was definitely the strongest today.”
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