A mudfest in Ardooie and two dry, and strikingly similar races in Boom and Valkenburg, shared between Van Aert and Van der Poel. In Ardooie on Wednesday, Van Aert was without rivals, and stormed to a forty second victory. On Saturday, Van der Poel was there to challenge him, and they looked headed for a duel akin to Zonhoven until Van der Poel slid out, allowing the Belgian clear to regain the upper hand over his rival.
He would not keep it long. In Valkenburg, Van der Poel took victory in his first World Cup of the season, in a storyline which is becoming all too familiar. Lars van der Haar got the holeshot, starting and riding the first lap as if shot out of a gun, but Van Aert stayed with him as Van der Poel was stuck in the lower reaches of the top ten for the first lap or two. However, after Van der Haar slid out on a corner and Van Aert started to spread the race out, Van der Poel slipped into second place and began to eat up the twelve second gap to his rival. He had closed it within a lap. The two rode as a duo for a while, Van Aert leading for a lap, then Van der Poel, before Van Aert took the lead again. Just as last week, they did not set a fast pace, which allowed a pursuit to catch them. This time, it was not the one chaser of Laurens Sweeck, but a group of four — Tom Meeusen, finally getting into form after a poor start to the season, Michael Vanthourenhout, Toon Aerts, second in Ardooie, and Kevin Pauwels. Just like Sweeck, however, they did not last long due to an attack from Van der Poel. It was quite an acceleration, leaving Van Aert in the dust, sprinting after the champion of the Netherlands but not able to catch him, with Vanthourenhout and Meeusen in tow. Van der Poel pulled out a gap of three or four seconds, a gap that Van Aert looked like winching closed before it was his turn to fall. He hit the ground hard on an off-camber section, taking down Meeusen, but got up quickly, if disconsolately. His race still looked alive, until, in what is becoming his unhappy trademark, he pedalled...and found no resistance. His chain, once again, had fallen off.
Van der Poel shot ahead, the race victory his if he made no mistakes, and indeed none were made. He crossed the line first, for his second successful Sunday in succession. Van Aert fought to reclaim second place, only fourteen seconds behind his rival, followed home by Vanthourenhout.
In the women's race, Thalita de Jong's win made it two out of two for the Netherlands. She defeated Sophie De Boer and Sanne Cant, with a nearly — read, one flaw, in the form of a small fall on the final lap — flawless performance. Lucinda Brand, another road racer making her presence felt in the field, finished fourth ahead of America's Amanda Miller.
What did we Learn?
I'm going to start with the women's race in this section if only because the men's bit is getting repetitive. Sanne Cant seriously has her work cut out for her this season. While I do think that she is holding onto some cards for worlds this season — she's won basically everything else in the last two seasons, and been so close to the rainbow jersey in both years that she's got to be really targeting the race in Luxembourg. However, De Jong is a good bit ahead of her at the minute, even if Cant may catch up in sandy or particularly muddy races.
In both men's races we looked like having a last lap duel, but were cheated of it by crashes. What's up with that? Sure, cyclocross is a risky sport where crashes and mechanicals happen all the time, but...what's up with that? Also, I hate to say a bad word about manufacturers, I truly do, but in Ronse, Gieten and now Valkenburg Van Aert's chain slipped, and that's just one month. It's happened a lot more than that in the last two seasons, so I have to wonder if there's something SRAM's chainset has wrong.
What's Coming Up?
The European championships, next Saturday. Nobody knows a lot about the course in Pontchâteau, France, but that's where the blue European champion's jersey will be fought for. Van der Haar and Cant are the current owners, to refresh your memory. Oh, and while there's nothing on Sunday, Koppenbergcross follows on the Tuesday.