Wout van Aert could only be separated from Mathieu van der Poel in the very final metres of the week's headline event in Zonhoven. He was stronger in the running sections, but Van der Poel always looked the better man at powering through the sand sections, and wore Van Aert down until he had nothing left in the sprint.
It was clear that the race would be fought between the two from the opening minutes — they sprinted side by side on the opening straight, and fought for the first corner until the last. Their opening laps were at a speed of twenty-seven kilometres per hour, and they put a huge gap into the chasing group after only three rounds of the Zonhoven circuit.
Both riders rode a race archetypal of their style — Van der Poel flicked his bike when going over the rollers the the back end of the lap and streaked down De Kuil's sandpit, making moves against Van Aert whenever the opportunity presented themselves, while Van Aert was more dogged, making up time on the running sections and putting down huge power whenever he got the chance.
The other name to remember from the race was Laurens Sweeck, who couldn't stick with Van der Poel and Van Aert at the start, yet rode a determined race, making up time on all of the middle laps so that he — oh so briefly — made contact with the duo at the beginning of the final lap before immediately falling back for a very, very respectable third place. It was his second — and no doubt, not last — time to finish third behind those two this season.
Those two fought it out for first place in a sprint — only their second ever sprint in the elite ranks that I remember (the other was in Hamme in 2014, won by Van Aert). Van Aert came onto the final straight first, after catching Van der Poel's attack earlier in the lap, but stalled and looked behind, giving Van der Poel the advantage which he hammered home. Both riders had given everything, both ceasing to pedal before the line, after giving everything in what was truly a battle of the titans.
Puh these battles with @mathieuvdpoel are tough! Thanks everyone on the course for the support!!— Wout van Aert (@WoutvanAert) October 16, 2016
What it takes to win a race . pic.twitter.com/0AV8U4cjIi— Mathieu Van der Poel (@mathieuvdpoel) October 16, 2016
The women's race was not quite so dramatic. Nikki Brammeier looked strong early on, but her chances of victory were put paid to by a tumble in the sand early on. Sanne Cant didn't delay in taking advantage, forging a large gap which she held to the finish. Brammeier stayed solo in second place, but was caught and passed by Jolien Verschueren, who finished in second place twenty-one seconds behind. Kaitlin Antonneau of the United States had a good day out, finishing one place off the podium in sight of Brammeier.
What did we Learn?
After two weeks of teasing, we got a definitive answer: there will be duels between Van der Poel and Van Aert this year, and they'll be close enough to keep us interested. (Van Aert, by the way, had a pretty heavy-duty chainguard to ensure he'd get to the finish). Van der Poel's superior (in my opinion) bike handling may have stood to him on the tricky parts of the Zonhoven course, while Van Aert made his presence felt on the run-ups. I think Van Aert might start to win more as the courses get heavier and more hilly. I can see Van der Poel winning next week, but Van Aert making a comeback at the Koppenbergcross.
We also learned that there are other people in these races! Van Aert was beaten by Vanthourenhout on Saturday in a Brico Cross in Kruibeke. Where was Vanthourenhout on Sunday? He'd buggered off to some C2 race. You know who else was there? Thalita De Jong and Lucinda Brand, that's who. De Jong dispatched of Cant easily enough in Ronse, and did the same with Brand on Sunday, but if those three get to the same level, the women's races could be the equal of Zonhoven's fight between Van Aert and Van der Poel.
Lars van der Haar also turned up to Zonhoven. He was injured at the start of the season, and has been getting gradually closer to his top level since. He won both of next week's races last year, and could be right back in form to try to compete.
What's Coming Up?
Ardooie, Boom and Valkenburg. The former two, C2s, the latter, a World Cup. Ardooie and Boom (not named after Lars). [It's actually named after Niels Albert.] aren't the biggest races, but Van Aert is riding both of them. Given his record in C2s on Saturdays, I'll say he won't win Boom, but will win Ardooie. And in Valkenburg...well, I'll get back to that.