Joris Nieuwenhuis (Baloise Trek Lions) took a breakthrough victory in the Merksplas Superprestige race on Saturday, distancing the rest of the field in the thick mud and leafy course north of Antwerp to win his first major race after a number of prestigious placings.
The 27-year-old took advantage of the absence of several big-name riders who were focused on Sunday’s World Cup race in Troyes, France. He started fast with Niels Vanderputte (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and soon distanced him with more power and bike skills in the tough conditions. It was his second win of 2023 after winning the Major Taylor Cross Cup race in the USA in October.
Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) had won all three Superprestige races this season but was off the pace early in the race this time, perhaps saving something for Sunday. However he fought with Spain’s Felipe Orts and then surged late to catch and pass Vandeputte on the final lap to snatch second place but 1:36 down on Nieuwenhuis.
Vandeputte was disappointed to miss out on his chance of a Superprestige win but salvaged third ast 1:45. Orts was fourth at 1:57. It was Orts best ever result in a Superprestige race.
Nieuwenhuis is the fourth Baloise Trek Lions rider to win a major series cyclocross race this season after Thibau Nys, Lars Van der Haar and Pim Ronhaar.
“This is of course very gratifying. It’s the first major cross that I’ve won amongst the pros, that's super special,” Nieuwenhuis said.
“My lower back held up very well today. That was the difference with other races where I had a lot of problems with my lower back. That certainly gives me confidence for the future.”
In the absence of Van der Haar, Nys and Vanthourenhout, Iserbyt was expected to take a fourth win in the Superprestige series. However his hopes were soon compromised as Vanderputte and Nieuwenhuis emerged from the left and right turns on leaves and cobbles that lead off road and into the mud. The two surged away as Iserbyt and Laurens Sweeck (Crelan-Corendon) initially struggled.
The mud was wheel deep and even more so in key points of the course, sparking crashes as front wheels sunk deep and threw riders off their bikes. For once, the deep sand section offered some respite to the mud but clogged the rider’s bikes, forcing regular changes.
Vandeputte was soon caught and passed by Nieuwenhuis and the 27-year-old Dutchman surged clear at half distance, seeming to enjoy the terrible conditions.
Nieuwenhuis was able to stay in the pedals on the steep, short ramps, while Vandeputte and even Iserbyt were often forced to jump off and run, gaining seconds in each section.
Spain’s Felipe Orts was able to stay up front and even fight and pass Iserbyt mid-race as he continued his impressive season.
Nieuwenhuis was able to power through the sand pit even in the second half of the race, as Vandeputte was forced to run and Iserbyt struggled and almost crashed over the barriers that came soon after. That allowed Nieuwenhuis to open a 35-second lead after five of the seven laps.
Nieuwenhuis pushed on during the final two laps, extending his lead over a minute, as Vandeputte faded, allowing Iserbyt and Orts to come up to him.
Iserbyt passed Vandeputte after he fumbled technical section during the final lap and so the podium places were decided, with Orts a vaillant fourth.
Many of the riders in the men’s and women’s race quickly showered and packed-up after the Merksplas race to drive 450 km south from near Antwerp to Troyes in northern France for Sunday’s World Cup races.
Cyclingnews will have full reports and news from Troyes.
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