First a huge bridge was cut from the circuit. After the women’s race, several parts of the course were rerouted to avoid the worst of the swamps. But no matter what the gale-force winds and torrential rain could throw at the World Cup Dendermonde on Sunday, the show went on.
What followed were two long, attritional races filled with axle-deep puddles, knee-deep sinkholes, and riders being catapulted off their bikes by underwater ruts.
Van der Poel was forthright in criticizing a course he deemed not fit for purpose.
“This was just not my thing,” he said after the race. “I thought it was a [expletive] course.”
The world champ was outclassed by van Aert in the swampy mud Sunday. Van Aert looked in his element as he ran, slid, and churned his bike around the waterlogged field to win by nearly three minutes. Van der Poel looked dejected as he – like much of the rest of the pack – looked to just get it over and done with.
“It can’t always be your thing, but I thought this was a bit unworthy of a World Cup,” he said. “That doesn’t take away from Wout’s performance, he was really extremely strong.
“I didn’t enjoy myself today. I didn’t like it at all. Whether that had a mental effect? When you love something, you always do better. I didn’t like to do this and vice versa he [van Aert] does.”
As with all European ‘cross events, the women’s race played out in the hours before the men took to the start grid.
The women’s peloton enjoyed the benefit of some still virgin grassy sections in the opening laps. However, they also had to contend with a wetter, looser course before they stomped the exposed field into an even swamp of thick, peanut-buttery mud.
U.S. ‘cross supremo Katie Compton was one of the racers hit the hardest by the atrocious conditions, with her foot disappearing into a 12-inch hole buried beneath the sloppy mud. She never recovered from the setback and was left to trail home four minutes down.
Compton’s partner Mark Legg joined van der Poel in criticizing the event.
“Broken power washers. A course that was un-rideable. Deep holes under the water. If you’ve raced cyclocross you would understand that race should never have been OK’d for a World Cup,” Legg wrote on Twitter.
Race organizers were left the difficult call of pushing on or bailing out in the hours ahead of the race. “Storm Bella” had ripped through northern Europe overnight, and lingering gale-force winds and heavy rain continued to batter the Belgian city through the morning.
Race boss Jurgen Mettepenningen barriered off an enormous bridge looming over the course, pulled down the start/finish arch in fear of the high winds, and laid matting over the worst puddles.
The show went on.
After Lucinda Brand had powered to yet another win in the women’s race, Mettepenningen’s team rerouted the direst sections of the circuit in advance of the men’s race. It wasn’t enough to prevent van der Poel’s anger at the conditions.
Mettepenningen pointed out that it was a case of all-or-nothing as his team looked to keep one of just five of the original 14 World Cup rounds on the calendar.
“You can always give it a try Mathieu,” he wrote. “All week and especially today flooding and today survived a storm! I could have canceled it, but together with my many volunteers I chose the hardest way!”
Whether the race should have carried on or not is a subject for debate.
One thing that is clear is that some riders thrived, and some just tried to survive. Whippety climber Tom Pidcock was one of six to abandon the men’s race. Of the men that battled to the finish, the top-60 were separated by a chasmic 10 minutes.
Those that prospered in the conditions pointed out the number of hard, fast courses on the season’s cross calendar. Just 24 hours earlier, Van der Poel had ridden a masterclass to win on the fluid, flowing course at Superprestige Zolder.
“At World Cups, we often get a lot of fast courses,” said Toon Aerts, who finished third behind Van Aert and van der Poel. “As a cyclocross rider, you have to be able to handle everything a bit. The weather determines the course and as a cyclist we must be able to respond to that and deal with it. ”
Van Aert simply couldn’t get enough of it.
“It’s strange to say, but I enjoyed it today,” he said. “I like epic circumstances, there I am completely in my element.”