If the Kerstperiode in Belgium is, in effect, a cyclo-cross stage race with races nearly every day from December 26th through January 6th, the Azencross in Loehhout is the queen stage. The Cross of the Aces is normally a fast race, often frozen, and was one of the first races to introduce things like a lighting system for the start and man-made features like their series of BMX style whoop-de-dos. When it’s muddy it’s often still fast, though this year was somewhat of an exception. A blanket of snow over ground that hadn’t quite frozen and temperatures just over freezing meant the water-logged course was also ice cold, slower, and more treacherous than typical.
The race was also notable this year for featuring another match up between this season’s U23 standouts, Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, as well as the return of Sven Nys to competition in a race he’s won six times, including last season’s edition while wearing the world champion’s jersey, in front of Rob Peeters, Niels Albert, Klaas Vantornout, and Zdenek Stybar.
The race would miss Albert and Stybar this year, of course, but also Lars van der Haar, due to illness and a desire for more recovery ahead of the next Bpost round in Baal on New Year’s Day. At the start though, Van der Haar’s reliably fast sprint was made up for by his compatriot Ramon Sinkeldam. Ramon Sinkeldam, you ask? Indeed. The Giant-Shimano road pro is a former U23 Paris-Roubaix winner but also a former Dutch junior cyclo-cross champion, in 2007. He rode fewer and fewer cyclo-cross races as his road career progressed through the U23s, but always returns for a race or two. With no UCI points he lined up in the last row, but the road sprinter and leadout man for Marcel Kittel happened to find a slot up the left hand side of the long paved start, came around rows and rows of riders once he had an open lane, and ripped the first left hand turn, foot out, second wheel behind Van Aert. Sinkledam couldn’t resist (certainly race instincts don’t go away), and he took over the front for almost a half lap, providing a genuinely entertaining opening act before the real show started. If only cyclo-cross could keep riders like him in the sport.
Photo: Tim De Waele/TDW Sport
Van Aert took over as they passed the pit the first time, with Peeters in tow, Van der Poel coming across, and Sinkledam drifting back through the field. A small slip from Van Aert held Peeters up and allowed Van der Poel to take the lead, and there it was; a half lap in to the race and the front group was already being decided, with the U23s more or less just riding away from the elites. Peeters held on, at least until the second time through the pit, before another small slip by Van der Poel allowed him to return to the front. At the end of the lap, Meeusen and a surprising Vincent Baestaens connected to the leaders, but only briefly.
Excepting Van Aert and Van der Poel, by lap two there was a regular race taking place behind them. Peeters, Meeusen, Walsleben, Kevin Pauwels, Jens Adams, Martin Bina, Baestaens, and to fans’ delight, Sven Nys, were riding together at a pace they likely could sustain for an hour, ignoring the young riders off the front riding what all would expect to be a pace they could only hold for one to two laps, or maybe 50 minutes. But there’s the catch; they have also been holding that pace for an hour, and it’s unbelievable that they do, to other riders and fans alike. It’s reasonable to expect the U23s to start fast and fade, but they don’t. They are not pretenders, and there doesn’t seem to be anything the elites can do about it.
The downside of this for fans? Early in the season the two-up battle between Van Aert and Van der Poel was exciting because they were new faces at the front of the races in the absence of Stybar and Albert. When they go away together so early, though, they’re often just riding around, pedaling hard until mistakes separate them gradually. It’s not that exciting to watch, and the interesting race is actually happening behind them, in the chase group.
At the end of lap two, with five laps to go, Van Aert and Van der Poel charged on, 23 seconds ahead and sharing the work. Nys moved to the front of the chase group, an encouraging sign, before immediately realizing he had a front puncture. Fortunately, on a course with mud this deep, the difference between a flat tire and one with air is less than 20 PSI, and Nys was able to make it to the pit without losing much time.
The first big difference between the two leaders came from Van Aert riding into the inside post in a turn on lap four, with less than four laps to go. Van der Poel was stuck behind him for what felt like an interminable amount of time, and then took off once he managed to find a way around. For a second, it looked like there was a race to watch, but not quite yet. It didn’t take long for Van Aert to calmly close the gap and restore the status quo. At three laps to go, the duo came through the finish with 55 seconds on the chase group, and growing.
Behind them a selection was finally separating itself from the chasers, led by Meeusen, not surprisingly, but accompanied by Nys and Peeters. Where are we in cyclo-cross when we’re surprised to see Nys riding strongly on the front of the second group? When he started to put pressure on the other two and go all in to chase the leaders like the Nys we’re used to, it was a glimmer of that compelling tactical gamesmanship the races need so desperately right now. One has to wonder, if Van Aert and Van der Poel ride away together in a forest, does it make a sound?
With two laps to go the margin was up to 1:15, an insurmountable and expanding advantage, but still, progress for Nys to even attempt a chase and gap riders behind him in the process. Up front, Van der Poel fell in the same turn as Van Aert two laps previously, but unlike Van Aert, did not have the legs to correct it. When they go away together, Van der Poel spends most of the race following Van Aert’s wheel. Van Aert can fix his mistakes, and as we’ve seen before, Van der Poel can’t. Because Van Aert was on the front when Van der Poel crashed, he was not held up at all and able to make a more significant gap, a clear benefit of leading on a muddy course where drafting is at a minimum. With less than a lap and a half left, Van Aert didn’t wait, and was all in to the finish.
Photo: Tim De Waele/TDW Sport
At one to go, Van Aert had put 16 seconds in to Van der Poel. Nys, Meeusen, and Peters were still together, but only inadvertently. Each would gain or lose a few seconds based on who rode a section best; no one was sitting on or waiting. But the gap to Van Aert was up to 1:55, and there would be no classic last lap catch for Nys. In fact, the three-rider chase group ultimately went the other way, sitting up to begin the race against themselves for third, and in the process, allowing Gianni Vermeersch, Pauwels, Peeters, Jan Denuwelaere and a surprising Tim Merlier to come back.
Meeusen managed to dump the group in the last half lap, while Vermeersch rode away from Denuwelaere and Pauwels. Nys seemed to make a point by leading through the last corner, reminding everyone that he was back and making sure the time gaps for the Bpost general classification were narrow, but not fighting for a final placing, his goal accomplished.
If Van Aert and Van der Poel had been riding in the U23 race at Loenhout, we’d be heralding the Return of the King and Sven Nys’ resurgent ride, and celebrating Meeusen’s victory and amazing technical riding on a difficult course. Considering the run of bad form Nys has been battling over the past month, his result today really does herald a return to form. Tellingly, as the riders crossed the line Nys was the first interview, not Van Aert. For Meeusen, it would be worth looking at how many second and third places he now has to the U23 riders, and what his season would look like on paper without them. Apart from Van Aert and Van der Poel, there were many new names in the top ten here, and clearly it’s a transition time for men’s elite ‘cross in Belgium. But unless the established elites can meet the new standard set by the emerging young riders, there won’t be much to watch at the front outside of a two-rider, Belgian-Dutch off-road time trial.
Photo: Tim De Waele/TDW Sport