Cyclo-cross World Champion Wout Van Aert began the season well, with two World Cup victories and holds a comfortable margin in that series, but back-to-back defeats by a surging Mathieu van der Poel this weekend would have any champion worried.
Van Aert says he is not panicking. He still holds a strong margin in the DVV Verzekeringen Trofee thanks to last month's commanding performance in Oudenaarde's Koppenbergcross, the World Cup, and the UCI overall rankings.
"Mathieu is currently just better," Van Aert said, "but I can also see a few percent [to improve]. I'm not panicking, I've also had many victories over him."
In Saturday's World Cup in Zeven, Germany, Van Aert went on the offensive early in the race as Van der Poel struggled with a broken spoke from the first sand section. The Dutch champion had to chase back almost half a minute before catching and dropping his Belgian rival.
"I managed to put him in trouble for half the race," Van Aert said. "Once he moved into the lead I realized after three corners what would happen. It was as if he rode on other tires. I was unable to follow him. He was the strongest."
Van der Poel soloed away to the win in Zeven by 21 seconds. On Sunday in Hamme at the Flandriencross, there was no stopping the Dutchman. Despite a hard, fast course, Van der Poel got away on the second lap and Van Aert could not catch him, even with help from his compatriot Laurens Sweeck.
"I decided early on to ease up and to ride my own race, as I like to do," Van Aert said according to Gazet Van Antwerpen. "Mathieu also came to the front and when he accelerated, I was not in a good position and honestly, it was also a bit too fast for me."
The world champion could take consolation in the fact that on a fast course unsuited to him, he kept Van der Poel to just six seconds, and continues to hold a lead in the DVV series, which is run on time, of 2:06 on Kevin Pauwels with Van der Poel down in eighth at 4:55.
Van der Poel leads the Superprestige series by two points over Van Aert, and the Belgian hopes to get some of those back this weekend in Spa-Francorchamps.
"I hope to do battle again with Mathieu in Francorchamps," Van Aert said. "At this time he is a little stronger, but I do not panic. It seems like a long time since I won, but ultimately it is not about how many races. I won on the Koppenberg, and since then he's been on a roll, but I will also recover some percent. I leave for Spain on Monday to train with the team, I will properly train and rest, and then Saturday is Francorchamps."
Van der Poel returned from his Spanish training camp ahead of the cancelled Koksijde World Cup round, riding instead 208km home with the strong tailwind to top off his form.
"The last few weeks I felt I was hitting top form," van der Poel said. "I hope to keep up this form until the next training camp and then add a few percentages with the eye on the World Championships."
December is a critical month for cyclo-cross, with the Namur and Heusden-Zolder World Cups, Francorchamps and Diegem Superprestige rounds and four rounds of the DVV Trophy in Essen, Antwerp, Loenhout and Baal on January 1.