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Wout van Aert dejected after being put ‘in the hurt box’ in world title clash with Mathieu van der Poel

Van Aert admits he 'f*cked up' final sprint after being maneuvered into position by Dutch nemesis.

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Wout van Aert vs Mathieu van der Poel in Hoogerheide 2023. The cyclocross duel of the season.

The six races ahead of the elite men’s category at the 2023 cyclocross world championships featured as prelude to the grand finale on Sunday afternoon. And what a finale it was.

It came down to a two-man-sprint on the “Via Roma of cyclocross” that is the Hoogerheide final – Scheldeweg is the wrong name.

The slightly bending uphill slope overlooks the Hoogerheide meadows which were packed with – mostly drunk – cyclocross fans who were basking in the winter sun.

During the final minute of racing, Van der Poel was holding the reins. He maneuvered Van Aert into the lead position as the latter feared a late attack at the barriers. When that didn’t happen, Van Aert was flabbergasted.

“He just surprised me by actually not doing something at the barriers. I had always in my mind that I would be second in the last corner. Suddenly I was in the front. That confused me so much that I forgot to sprint basically,” Van Aert explained.

“It was a short sprint. I didn’t make up any ground. He came from behind and gained a few meters. Even from the slipstream I wasn’t coming back. What gear? Not enough gears in the back when Mathieu passed me, that’s for sure.”

“If I could do it again I think I should’ve started my sprint immediately from the corner,” Van Aert said shortly after the race in the mixed zone.

“Maybe Mathieu would pass me as well but I would feel better about it. Mathieu was stronger than me today. Still I had a chance to win the race because I was there for the sprint. Somehow I f*cked it up.”

The Belgian team had a plan for the start and for the sprint. The start panned out perfectly, said Belgian coach Sven Vanthourenhout. Second-row starter Van Aert was right behind Van der Poel.

“I asked the other Belgians to position themselves on the left-hand side of the road. The fast starters would then be on the right-hand side. The road turns to the left so there would be space to move up on the right,” Vanthourenhout said.

Straight away, Van Aert was on Van der Poel’s wheel when entering the meadows of Hoogerheide.

Once Dutchman Lars van der Haar came off the front, Van der Poel charged forward and Van Aert marked his move, seemingly comfortably. As it turned out, Van Aert was suffering big time.

“He was so strong in the beginning. During the first half of the race, I was so much on the limit to follow Mathieu. He really put me in the hurt box. Afterward I felt a bit shit to not give him more competition. I felt like just hanging on his wheel and couldn’t really try something,” Van Aert said.

Van der Poel piled pressure on Van Aert all race.

In hindsight it’s easy to come up with other race scenarios and despite being in the “hurt box,” Van Aert came to the front a couple of times, trying something at the off-camber section.

“I tried to put pressure sometimes because it’s always important to sense how the others are going. During the second half of a race the sensations can be different compared to the first half. With the wind, I quickly realized that it was useless. I focused on the sprint,” Van Aert said.

The plan for the sprint on Saturday would be to wait. “The wind turned and was strong on Sunday so the plan was not to wait in that case,” coach Sven Vanthourenhout said.

When Van Aert was asked if he would have a hard feeling about the race, he didn’t know just yet.

“Call me tomorrow, not too early,” he joked, grimly

The cyclocross season is now over for the two protagonists and they switch focus to the road season, with the spring classics coming up quickly. Not winning the world championships race wouldn’t motivate Van Aert more for the road.

“I don’t need extra motivation for the road season. I start in Strade Bianche. It’s good that it’s coming really fast so that I can change my mind in the upcoming days,” he said. “We all knew that the runner-up would be disappointed. That’s how it is.”

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