Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) utterly obliterated the rest of the competition at the Telenet Superprestige in Heusden-Zolder on Monday, cruising to his fifth straight victory of the cyclo-cross season by more than a minute ahead of fellow WorldTour rider Tom Pidcock (Ineos), who out-sprinted Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal).
The expected showdown between Van Aert, Pidcock and world champion Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) this weekend never quite materialised. Van Aert got the measure of the Dutchman in Dendermonde on Sunday, while Pidcock was eighth, and Van der Poel dropped out of the race in Zolder after 45 minutes.
There was speculation that the world champion might have crashed off-camera or that his knee injury - still under a bandage after he had stitches to a big gash earlier this month - was bothering him. "Just a bad day," Van der Poel told Het Nieuwsblad.
Van Aert, however, has shown himself to be a level above the rest of the field since belatedly starting his 'cross season in early December but he remains coy on whether he will compete at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas in January.
"I fear that that will be the question every day," Van Aert said. "We will definitely talk about it after the Belgian championships. I keep saying that."
Van Aert has been hedging about Worlds since November when his coach Marc Lamberts told Het Laatste Nieuws that he would prefer that the Belgian champion skip Worlds to prepare for the early season Classics on the road.
"If you think about it as far as preparation, I would say don’t go. But there are other sporting interests at stake. We have to see with the Jumbo-Visma team what is possible and then try to achieve an acceptable compromise," Lamberts said last month.
With the form Van Aert has been displaying, especially when compared with the defending world champion Van der Poel, he would be the outright favourite to take the title in Arkansas - he agreed his start has been the best of his career.
"I don't think I've ever won five 'cross races in a row," Van Aert said today. "Maybe that says enough."
It has been especially impressive that Van Aert can recover from exceptionally difficult races and still perform on the following day. He did so after winning a muddy race in Essen earlier in the month, flying to Italy late at night then storming away to the World Cup victory in Val di Sole.
Similarly, after a tough race on Sunday in Dendermonde where he soloed to victory over Van der Poel, Van Aert showed no signs of suffering from the exertion 24 hours later.
"It was a bit of a wait and see how I would feel," Van Aert said. "Last night I felt the efforts. A mud 'cross like that is always an assault, but during the warm-up this morning I noticed that I had recovered."
Although he started from the second row, Van Aert was already at the front of the race before they left the pavement, and he continued until there were no riders who could hold his wheel. "This is one of the few 'crosses where it's not a disadvantage to be on the second row at the start. The seas parted at a good moment."
"My start was perfect and I immediately had a good feeling. I tried to make the difference because I had also seen that Mathieu (van der Poel) was not going well and there were gaps."
Van Aert said he will try to continue his winning streak in his next races. Although the Superprestige in Diegem was cancelled, the X2O races in Loenhout, Baal and Herentals and the Hulst World Cup await before the Belgian championships. "When I start, I race to win," he laughed again. "That's never been different."
"Today and yesterday I did give a lot. It's going to be a matter of finishing well and then extending my Belgian title."
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