No time like the present for Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) to hit his stride in his return to cyclo-cross, as he went straight to the top step of the podium in his first race of the 2020-21 season on Saturday.
It was the fifth win of his career at X²0 Badkamers Trofee-Scheldecross in Antwerp, but not a presumptive lone escape with distance and a chunk of time to spare.
The three-time world champion took a spill in the sand on the third lap of the circuit, crashing into a pole, which reduced his early lead before a mistake in the same area on lap 4 allowed Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) a chance to reconnect.
The twosome then duked it out until the penultimate lap, where Van der Poel moved clear and went on to win by six seconds ahead of Iserbyt, who retains his lead in the X²O Badkamers Trofee.
"I felt good from the start. I only made a mistake in the sand when I was riding alone. That broke the spring a bit, because afterwards I never got through that section properly," said Van der Poel in his post-race interview.
"However, I did not have the feeling that I was on the limit. I also had a bit extra in the wheel of Iserbyt. Actually, I always had a good feeling. That made me happy, because last year I often had that feeling at the start of the season."
Last season, Van der Poel started his 'cross campaign at the fourth round of the Superprestige series in Ruddervoorde in early November. This year, he began his abbreviated season a month later, with just three rounds left, though the bulk of the X²O Trofee and World Cup calendars still remain.
"I’m three kilos lighter," said the Tour of Flanders champion about his weight compared to the road Classics in October.
"I am never at my lightest during the Classics. That happens more often in the winter. With the running training and different intensive training for 'cross, it is better to be lighter. Moreover, in a race of six hours on the road you have to have reserves and surplus on your body. So this is half a conscious choice."
On Sunday Van der Poel is set to take the line at his first round of the Superprestige in Gavere, followed by seven more races leading into the defence of his world title in January.
"It will be difficult. It’s going to be difficult with Toon Aerts, who will find a course tailored to his needs," he said of Gavere.
"Eli was also perfectly fine today, I had to do everything I could to get rid of him."
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