World champion Wout Van Aert (Crelan-Charles) got the better of his rival Mathieu van der Poel (Beobank-Corendon) for the first time this season after winning the fifth round of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup in Zeven, Germany. The win laid to rest any doubts that he or the Belgian cycling community had about his form.
Van Aert capitalized on Van der Poel's early-race mechanical to build a strong lead, one that the Dutchman could not close and he finished second, ending his winning streak in the World Cup series.
"Of course, this was the most decisive moment of the race because Mathieu is the biggest opponent for all the starters," Van Aert said. "But when he has bad luck, of course, we don't wait for him, and we just go. We take our chances, but afterwards, it was such a long race that I think everyone had a chance to gain back time. I managed to keep the lead."
The World Cup started with a select group taking shape of early on. Van der Poel led the way followed closely by Van Aert, Corne Van Kessel (Telenet Fidea Lions), Michael Vanthourenhout (Marlux - Napoleon Games) and Michael Boros (Pauwels Sauzen – Vastgoedservice).
Bad luck struck several riders one-by-one by the second lap. Van Kessel broke the cleat off of his right shoe, Van der Poel had to dismount and struggled to fix a jammed chain, and Boros over-cooked a corner trying to avoid Van der Poel and rode into a post.
Van der Poel's mechanical likely played the biggest role in the outcome of the race, as the Dutchman lost valuable time to Van Aert. He managed to make his way back up to second place but he wasn't able to close the gap and finished runner-up to Van Aert at 47 seconds back, and only just managed to cross the line ahead of Toon Aerts (Telenet Fidea Lions), who was making up ground quickly on the Dutchman.
"I knew second place was the best possible result," Van der Poel said. "I'm certainly not going to say that I was the strongest rider today."
Although Van der Poel's winning streak came to an end in Zeven, he maintained his lead in the series' standings with 390 points. Van Aert has 300 points and Aerts 264.
As for Van Aert, the win has given him much needed confidence in his form.
"It's disappointing for the spectators, in the first place, and for the race itself that Mathieu had bad luck, but for me the victory is the most important," Van Aert said.
Earlier this season, Van Aert seemed to be in a bit of a slump and unable to respond to the top form coming from Van der Poel in the World Cup. Van der Poel had won the first four rounds in Iowa City, Waterloo, Koksijde and Bogense.
Outside of the World Cup, Van Aert had series of runner-up performances in the Superprestige in Gieten, Zonhoven and Ruddervoorde. He went to Tuscany to spend time with his partner and focus on training, and came back to win the next round of the series in Gavere on November 12, but even though his form was on the rise, he was no match for Van der Poel in the Bogense World Cup last weekend.
Although he attributes some of his success in Zeven to Van der Poel’s first-lap mechanical, Van Aert insisted that his rival had plenty of time to recuperate his losses during the last seven laps. He is confident that his form has improved and that he will be on par with Van der Poel for the second half of the World Cup with events in Namur, Heusden-Zolder, Nommay and Hoogerheide.
"It’s a really nice victory," Van Aert said to the press in Zeven. "In my opinion, it is the first time that I've beat Mathieu this season and in a good way. Without too much bad luck for him, because I believe he had the chance to come back. Mentally, for me, this is a big step forward. The last two weeks I felt good in training and I hope and believe that the training is on the rise right now."