Wout van Aert said that there was nothing to be done to stop rival, Alpecin-Fenix's Mathieu van der Poel, from soloing to a commanding victory at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup round in Hulst on Sunday.
The Jumbo-Visma man finished in second place at the race, the penultimate round of the World Cup, trailing in 1:31 down on the Dutchman. He retains the overall ranking lead, however, and will seal victory if he finishes second or higher in Overijse on January 24.
After the race, Van Aert said that he wasn't at his absolute best in Hulst, though he needed to be to match Van der Poel in his current form.
"It may not have been my worst day, but if Mathieu has his best day then you have to be on top yourself," he said, adding that he felt better than the last time the pair faced off at the GP Sven Nys in Baal.
"Before the start I had a better feeling than I did in Baal. I liked it because of that, but it just wasn't there."
Van Aert fell behind in the opening laps after a mix-up between he and his mechanic in the pits saw him miss a bike change, costing valuable seconds. Out on the course, Van der Poel and Baloise Trek Lions rider Toon Aerts were forging ahead, and by lap three, Van der Poel was away alone at the front of the race.
"My mechanic was ready," Van Aert said. "But suddenly, someone came to disrupt our movement. I wanted to grab the bike but it was gone.
"I lost my momentum a couple of times, but I didn't have the legs today either."
Van Aert switched to different tyres several times during the race as he sought the best grip in the muddy conditions. He eventually settled and spent the latter half of the race fighting a battle for second place with Trinity Racing's Tom Pidcock. He managed to drop the young Briton on the final lap to roll in behind Van der Poel.
"I was sure I would need the coarser tyre tread," he said. "But the wind dried it up a lot. I thought it was the tyres and the less coarse tread, but that didn't work as I had hoped either."
Van Aert will be back in action next weekend at the Belgian Championships, followed by the X2O Trofee round in Hamme and leading up to the World Championships on home ground in Oostende on January 31.
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Daniel Ostanek has been a staff writer at Cyclingnews since August 2019, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later part-time production editor. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content on Cyclingnews and takes on live race text coverage throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Tro-Bro Léon, Strade Bianche, and the Vuelta a España.
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