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Cyclocross

What we learned from the opening ‘cross clash between Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, Tom Pidcock

Here are five takeaways from the first big-name battle ahead of the January world championships.

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The cyclocross hype-wagon rumbled into Namur on Sunday and duly delivered a bruising opening showdown between the sport’s three biggest stars, Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and Tom Pidcock.

The mucky mayhem of this weekend’s race, won by van der Poel, made for an early insight into the form and fortunes of cross’ big-three and their second-tier challengers as the Oostende world championships loom in the horizon on January 31.

Are Wout and Mathieu still the only two to think about in the battle for the rainbow jersey? Is Pidcock here to stay? And can Michael Vanthourenhout, Eli Iserbyt, or Toon Aerts strike a challenge at the worlds?

Here’s what we learned in Namur.

Van der Poel is still the best – even when he’s not at his best

On the limit, but still the best. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

For the opening laps of the race Sunday, van der Poel actually looked in difficulty. That’s right, the dominant Dutchman looked to be struggling. A handful of slips and slides, a few cautionary stabilizing feet on the grass as his rivals rode through cleanly. Not what we’re used to seeing.

After a handful of sighting laps, the world champion reminded us all just why he’s been wearing the rainbow jersey the past two years, however. While featherweight Pidcock was able to float away on the rideable climbs of the course, van der Poel was again and again able to keep the gap on the race leader in check with trademark monster bursts of power, demon descending, and surprisingly nimble feet for his heavy-set frame.

Once Pidcock was caught and dropped, van der Poel went clear of van Aert. The Dutchman was on the limit as he raced away from his longtime Belgian rival, but there was no looking back and the win was secure through the final lap.

“I never had the feeling that I any more to give, and I almost fell a few times,” van der Poel said after the victory. “I was really on the limit – I feel pretty broken everywhere. I took a lot of risks today.”

Van der Poel looked a half-watt better than his two rainbow jersey rivals Van Aert and Pidcock on Sunday, despite it being only his third ‘cross race of the year. However, after being beaten by Pidcock at Gavere last weekend and being pushed hard by the Brit in Namur, van der Poel accepted that ‘cross is now a three-horse race.

“Pidcock is the man of the race,” he said. “It was a big battle, I had to push my limits to win today. I had to go very deep.”

Van der Poel is still playing catch-up after his late start to the season. His rivals were duly warned at Namur of what could be coming in the next month.

Pidcock won’t stop attacking

Pidcock vows to continue playing offense against heavier rivals van Aert and van der Poel. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Pidcock is the true firecracker of the three ‘cross hitters right now, and he’s planning to stay that way.

Tipping the scales 10-15kg lighter than his literal and metaphorical heavyweight rivals van der Poel and van Aert, Pidcock again went on the offense early as he looked to capitalize on his climbing chops, much like he did when he bettered van der Poel in Gavere.

The 21-year-old went out of the gate hot and led the race by a healthy margin for some three laps, only to be caught and distanced at the last.

Van der Poel and van Aert marked each other out behind Pidcock in the boggy mud Sunday, bringing their big power into play as they plowed around the heavy course. Pidcock doesn’t have the output to match his burly rivals, and knows he has to race differently to suit his strengths.

“I didn’t ride a perfect race, but I think that’s the best way to race for me right now,” he said of his offensive strategy. “I think today, with a bit of luck and more initiative in the last lap I could maybe have been second, but I don’t think I could ever have won.

“I always ride better in the front. If I was racing in the wheels I wouldn’t be so good,” he said. “So I think I raced the correct way today. The podium is good and I was racing with the two kings of the ‘cross today, so that’s a consolation.”

The hilly courses of Namur and Gavere played into Pidcock’s skillset. His next challenge will be continuing to threaten the long-established order of ‘cross on the faster, flatter courses to come.

Van Aert is rediscovering his mojo the hard way

Van Aert finished second after van der Poel went clear in the final laps. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Van Aert got the best finish so far of his four-race season when he crossed the line a few seconds behind van der Poel in Namur.

The Belgian rode the most consistent race of the three top contenders, never off the back, but also never off the front and looking a true threat. Strong, but perhaps unspectacular. While van Aert showed the unfaltering handling and big motor that has won him three world titles, he admitted Namur wasn’t his finest tactical performance.

The Jumbo-Visma star did the legwork in pulling himself and van der Poel back to Pidcock after the young Brit scampered clear mid-way through the race.

“I get the prize for the dumbest today,” van Aert said. “I brought Mathieu back on track by closing the gap, I should have known better. I think I was too focused on coming back into the race rather than winning the race.”

Despite the misfiring his race-craft, van Aert looked the best he has so far this ‘cross season, hitting his stride just in time for Sunday’s much-anticipated showdown with van der Poel.

Van Aert suggested that while there were negatives to his race, there were also a whole lot of positives.

“In general I rode around too much with the other two [Pidcock and van der Poel], closed too many holes, and attacked too little myself – there was a lack of confidence,” van Aert said. “After today, I have to believe in myself more in the next races.”

Van Aert looked to have stepped it up one gear at Namur, and he is likely still far from top speed. Namur may not have been his day, but he said he would be banking a well-earned lesson from the muck of Sunday’s race.

“I can really build on this,” van Aert said. “I am very happy that I was able to ride such a ‘cross, and the confidence that I missed today, I must draw from this and have it next time.”

Van Aert has plenty of races left on his schedule before the Oostende world champs – more than enough time to continue manicuring his mojo.

Second-tier challengers remain gutsy but not good enough

Vanthourenhout (number 16, front), battled bravely but faded away in the second half. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Michael Vanthourenhout proved best of the rest Sunday.

Like Pidcock, lightweight climber Eli Iserbyt was made for the hills of Namur, but a mechanical problem in the opening seconds of the race robbed the European champion of his chance to compete. Toon Aerts was off the pace all day, suffering from severe bruising after a training accident with a car Friday.

Like he has for much of the season to date, it was World Cup-leader Vanthourenhout who led the battle against the top trio. The 27-year-old went out fast and matched Pidcock, van der Poel and Van Aert blow-for-blow through the first six laps. A puncture called time on his challenge for the podium, though Vanthourenhout still managed a comfortable fourth-place.

“I was happy to be there, but I think fourth was the best I could get,” he said. “We saw in Gavere that Pidcock is at his peak. We know the qualities of van Aert and van der Poel, and they are only getting stronger. I’m just glad that I was able to ride with those men for 50 minutes.”

Iserbyt and Aerts didn’t get their opportunity to stake their place in the ‘cross hierarchy Sunday, but as Vanthourenhout warned, van Aert and van der Poel are on the up. They may have to make do with just being content as contenders.

The world championships is a whole different ballgame

The Oostende championships are still six weeks away, leaving a lot of time for form to be massaged into top-condition, or even – in the case of van Aert and van der Poel – for the fatigue of a long, hard, road season to kick in.

Similarly, the Oostende course is far from what we saw in Namur. The rainbow jersey battle will play out on a wacky man-made circuit dominated by a long sandy section and steep flyover that favors fast runners and technically tight riders.

While Namur offered only an opening glimpse of the ‘cross power rankings, the ball is currently in the defending champion’s court. But van der Poel isn’t counting his jerseys before they’ve hatched.

“Whether the three of us [van der Poel, van Aert, Pidcock] are favorites for the world championships? Oostende is a completely different course and it is still a while away,” he said. At the moment the three of us are the best, I think, but that is certainly no guarantee for world championship success.”