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Van Aert won Tuesday at the end of a gripping battle of wills, skills, and near-miss spills in front of a packed crowd at the Superprestige round in Heusden-Zolder.
“It was nerve-racking all the way through the race”, Van Aert said. “Mathieu broke open the race and I think we both felt we weren’t going to get each other off today. The second half of the race I was only concerned with which tactics I would use.”
The duo revived their career-long rivalry in a thrilling tug-of-war between the two stars that came down to a sprint.
In the women’s race, Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado won round 5 of the Superprestige series on the technical, muddy Terlaemen Circuit in Heusden-Zolder.
Late wobble torpedoes Van der Poel’s chances
Van der Poel attacked early to blow up the race, and only Van Aert could follow.
That set up a thrilling slug match of pure strength set against the twisting, technical Zolder course.
Taking a page from their past battles, the pair worked together to distance the chasers, and just when it looked like one might have an advantage, the other would counter.
“I tried to make a difference on the last technical part, but it didn’t work. We were evenly matched. It then came down to a sprint,” Van der Poel said.
The pair was joined at the wheel coming into the final lap with the race still capable of going either way.
Van der Poel looked to be in ideal position coming out a series of technical sectors. After yo-yoing across the entire race, Van der Poel won the fight for positioning coming into the final half lap.
He managed to open a small gap a technical combination of descents and stairs, but a mechanical problem made him lose momentum — perhaps a small chain slip — and that allowed Van Aert to come through.
Van Aert led into the two-up sprint, and then Van der Poel slipped out his pedal in the final charge to the line.
“I wanted to make it a long sprint at first, but it ended up being a short sprint. Unfortunately, I slipped out of my pedal in the sprint,” Van der Poel said. “That is a disappointment, that I didn’t get the chance to sprint. It is a pity, so on to tomorrow.”
Van Aert eased across the line the victor, but it was an intense battle from start to finish that serves as another stunning preview of what the world championships could look like in February.
“I was actually in a position where I wanted to be. When I came to the last hill, Mathieu was on foot or made a mistake. That’s how I ended up in the lead,” Van Aert said. “There I tried to catch my breath and started the sprint from afar.
“For once I could keep a cool head and I didn’t make any mistakes. I am very happy with this win.”
Van der Haar pips Pidcock for podium
With the leading duo off the front, it was a big race for the podium behind.
Pidcock tried late to open a gap to secure third, but others wouldn’t let him go.
Lars van der Haar marked the world champion in the closing laps to secure third on the podium, with Pidcock crossing the line fourth.
“Today I was not even in the race. I was in a different race. Not the best day, but it’s a hard course. Already half the race I was feeling it. All the sprints out of the corners are quite hard,” Pidcock said. “In the end, I knew it wasn’t happening.”
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Alvarado wins to close in on series lead
Alpecin-Deceuninck’s Alvarado was back in the winner’s circle in an intense race. She attacked on the penultimate lap, and held the gap to the line.
Series leader Denise Betsema (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) started fast, but couldn’t hold the pace to open the door for Alvarado to close the gap in the series’ lead.
Both skipped Monday’s World Cup to be fresh for Tuesday’s race with the leader’s jersey in the balance.
Alvarado surged late on the technical, bumpy course, and sliced through the descents to open gaps. By lap 3, Alvarado and Betsema pulled clear of a busy start, with Inge Van der Heijden hitching a ride.
“I really wanted to work with Inge. She was also very strong, but had to let go at one point,” Alvarado said. “Then I had no choice but to continue to the line on my own.”
Alvarado admitted it was slow going until she found her rhythm late in the race.
“The first two laps were quite difficult for me and I was on the limit,” she said. “When the gaps were finally a bit bigger and I could set the pace myself, it went better and better. Until I was the strongest left at the end.”
Van der Heijden (777) crossed the line second, with Lucinda Brand (Baloise Trek Lions) continuing her steady streak with third following strong late laps.
Betsema finished fifth after losing steam late, but held on to defend the series lead by 1 point ahead of Alvarado.
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