Wout Van Aert is already looking forward to his next battle with Mathieu Van der Poel after misfortune ended his podium hopes at the UCI Cyclocross World Cup round in Hulst.
In his last ride before Jumbo-Visma becomes Visma–Lease a Bike the Belgian battled back from 27th to finish fifth – and was ticking off the laps quicker than his rival on the last four laps.
Van der Poel has now won all four of the rivals’ meetings and they next compete in Baal on January 1, before also clashing in Koksijde on January 4.
Van Aert was within the leading group in Hulst when Dutch rider Pim Ronhaar came side-by-side with him on a technical off-camber and the Belgian slid out.
The Jumbo Visa rider required a bike change and was battling from 36 seconds down and in 27th position on the second lap.
As Van der Poel attacked at the front a lap later Van Aert suffered a puncture and found himself 1:22 behind the leader.
However, the Belgian rallied fighting his way through the field and was the quickest rider on the course for three consecutive laps.
Eventually, Van Aert came home fifth cutting his deficit to 43 seconds behind the race winner and 23 seconds off the podium.
“The start didn’t go very well, so I had to make up some places quickly,” said Van Aert in a team press release.
“Unfortunately, in the fight for the positions, I crashed. In the end, my chain turned out to be broken.
“I lost a lot of time. When I was finally able to start my pursuit, I had a puncture and had to ride half a lap with a flat tire. With that, the fight for the podium places was over.”
In Van der Poel’s absence, Van Aert has won in both Heusden-Zolder and Essen but the Belgian is yet to beat his rival.
Coming into this ‘cross season the former world cyclo-cross champion admitted his preparation had been different this winter amid ambitious road racing goals next year.
“I felt very good the past few days,” Van Aert added. “Unfortunately, it has not worked out today.
“However, I continued to fight and did not hang my head after the various inconveniences. Fortunately, the next opportunity will soon present itself.”
Van Aert had hoped to give departing sponsor Jumbo a final victory before donning a new kit in Baal on January 1.
Before the race, he said: “It is a sponsor who has been in cycling for a very long time, who has brought our team to where we are now.
“I, like all the members of the team, I’m super grateful for that. It is certainly an extra motivation to finish – also in the Netherlands – with a good result.”
Fellow World Tour star Tom Pidcock was also hoping to challenge Van der Poel in Hulst before seeing his challenge end on the first corner.
The Ineos Grenadiers rider collided with fellow Briton and former team-mate Cameron Mason resulting in a broken rear derailleur.
Pidcock was forced to run to the pits and was last of the 99-man field 1:46 down on the race pack.
The Briton went on a determined fightback which included a questionable headbutt to create space to pass Swedish rider Ville Merlov.
Pidcock eventually came through to finish 25th after matching the lap times of the top 10 riders in three of the eight laps.