Van der Poel rode clear on the final lap of the tough Namur circuit after a tense battle with Van Aert and Pidcock through the back-half of the race. After leading the race for five laps, Pidcock faded in the final circuit while Van Aert stayed strong, leaving the Belgian to take second place while the young Brit took third.
“Today was a really hard battle. I had to really push my limits to take the win today,” van der Poel said. “I had to dig really deep to take the win today.”
In the women’s race, Lucinda Brand took her third consecutive win in Namur, and the eighth of her stellar season. Young U.S. national champ Clara Honsinger took second in what was a landmark result in her blossoming career.
The Namur Citadel course made for a suitably tough course for the big showdown in the men’s field as long muddy climbs, steep descents, and cobbles made for one of the most attritional courses on the cyclocross calendar.
Eli Iserbyt’s race was ended before it even begun as a mechanical in the opening hundred meters put him way off the back. The young Belgian kept riding but was left well out of contention from there on.
Michael Vanthourenhout led the race at the start of the first lap before Pidcock came to the front as Van Aert and van der Poel lurked a few places back.
By lap two, Pidcock was driving the pace as he led a group of van der Poel, Van Aert and Vanthourenhout. World champion van der Poel stumbled and slipped several times through the first laps, leaving him to have to chase back each time.
Pidcock squeezed out a small gap on the cobbled climb on lap four, and grew his lead further as he chose not to go into the pits while Vanthourenhout, Van Aert and van der Poel all went in to change bikes together.
Van der Poel detached from the chasers through lap five as he went in solo pursuit of Pidcock. The big Dutchman was close to closing Pidcock down in lap six, only for the Brit to stretch the lead again as he chose not to pit while van der Poel went for a bike swap.
By lap eight, the two former world champs bridged across to Pidcock as Vanthourenhout raced in fourth, and 15 seconds back. Van der Poel’s big power came to the fore toward the end of lap eight as he gained a slight gap through a heavy muddy section as Pidcock and Van Aert chased a few seconds back.
After such an offensive front half of the race, Pidcock finally faded in the last lap as Van Aert went off in solo pursuit of van der Poel.
Van der Poel was faultless through the final lap however, and held on for the win, crossing the line three seconds ahead of his long-time rival Van Aert.
“He can go far over his limit in the last lap and I’m capable of doing a good final, but very often he’s just stronger in the end,” Van Aert said of van der Poel.
“Especially in the laps before, we were a bit behind Pidcock and I think I was too focussed on coming back into the race rather than winning the race, so a little lack of confidence,” he continued. “After today, I have to believe in myself more in the next races.”
Pidcock finished third, 11 seconds down on van der Poel. His podium finish backs up last weekend’s breakout win in Gavere. The 21-year-old had no regrets over his aggressive race on the front as he took it to his two heavier, more experienced rivals.
“I didn’t ride a perfect race, but I think that’s the best way to race for me right now,” he said. “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. So I think I raced the correct way today.”
Lucinda Brand rode to a dominant victory in the women’s race, her eighth of the season as she went unmatched on the attritional climbers’ course.
Behind Brand, Oregon native Clara Honsinger rode to a breakout second place, the biggest result of her European career to date. Honsinger rode away from Denise Betsema in the final lap, leaving the Dutchwoman to take third as the American secured a landmark result in her young career.
“The result came with a lot of pressure on it,” Honsinger said. “I got a good result last weekend at Gavere, and people were recognizing the similarities between that race and this. To actually come off and execute and get my first second place at a World Cup is really significant.”
When asked about the length of time since a U.S. rider took a podium at the World Cup, Honsinger was reluctant to write off the likes of Kaitie Keough and Katie Compton.
“It just feels like I’m following in the ruts my predecessors set for me,” Honsinger said. “They’re still out there doing excellent racing and I want to be up there as a peer with them.”
Brand took the lead of the race on lap two having caught and dropped race-leader Betsema. Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado sat around 30 seconds back in third, while behind her a small pack chased, led by 23-year-old Honsinger.
Betsema kept Brand to within a few seconds only to lose her toehold on the charging leader in lap three, crashing into the barriers on the transition off a steep descent, leaving her rival to ride clear.
By lap four, Brand had gained over 30 seconds of a lead as Alvarado, Honsinger and Betsema came together in a chase for the podium slots. Heading into lap five, Alvarado fell off the pace as Honsinger set a fierce tempo as her climbing chops put Betsema under pressure.
With Brand well ahead and looking faultless, it came down to a race for second and third as Honsinger and Betsema looked inseparable.
Honsinger was able to finally detach the Dutchwoman midway through the final lap to ride to second-place, 29 seconds behind Brand, who took her third consecutive victory on the course.
“I love this course, It’s super cool to win a third in a row,” Brand said. “I just love it here!”