Wout Van Aert (Cibel-Cebon) told the press ahead of the Belgian Cyclo-cross Championships that he would ride for nothing less than the tri-colour national championship jersey in Kruibeke on Sunday but the current world champion struggled to stay with rival and eventual championship winner Toon Aerts (Telenet Fidea).
Van Aert was on the hunt to secure a fourth title but was caught and passed by Aerts in the closing laps of the elite men's race. Aerts raced a superb championship, particularly in the final laps to take the victory by a minute ahead of Van Aert and even further to third-placed Michael Vanthourenhout (Marlux - Bingoal).
"There's always a lot of pressure on my shoulders," Van Aert said in a post-race flash interview. "I need to show I can win in every race. First I need to deal with the disappointment of today because I came here to capture a fourth title and that didn't work out. Toon deserved the title. Tonight I'll enjoy a pack of frites and a special cervelat."
Van Aert has been caught up in months of legal disputes over team contracts, but he signed a three-year contract at Team Jumbo-Visma that will allow him to join the team from March 1. He is expected to start his road season this spring and is a talked-about rider ahead of the Classics because of strong performances last season.
During this cyclo-cross season, however, he has struggled to keep up to his Dutch rival Mathieu van der Poel. Even so, he was the favourite to win the Belgian championships race against predicted rivals Aerts, Vanthourenhout and Tom Meeusen (Telenet Fidea Lions).
Van Aert separated himself from his rivals early on and by mid-way point of the race held a sizeable lead on chasing riders Aerts and Vanthourenhout. He struggled with some of the technical sections and had a few bobbles through the off-camber mud. Aerts rode flawlessly and managed to catch and pass Van Aert, and went on to win the title with a minute to spare.
It was an emotional victory for Aerts, who fought back tears as he expressed his happiness upon becoming the new Belgian cyclo-cross champion. He said mental training had a lot to do with his performance.
"I thought back to what I had learned during the mental training last summer," Aerts told Sporza. "I just had to keep the focus on myself, racing technically and not making mistakes. And that's how I came back to Wout, when I raced away, it was not an attack, I just did my own thing: put forth my strength and went where I could go, and before I knew it, I had a gap on Wout.
"I just wanted to make it clear that I'm super happy, I'm proud to put on such a great season."