Psst, don't tell anyone, but I think Mathieu van der Poel is back. On his first race back in the saddle, he put his arms in the air after conquering the sands of Gieten. How did he achieve this? Well, predictably enough, he and Wout van Aert jumped ahead of the main field early on, and fought a duel to determine the winner. It was a tight battle, with the sand-covered climb just before the finishing straight providing much of the drama. At first, it looked to be advantage Van der Poel after Van Aert became unseated on that hill, but then...this happened:
That put Van Aert back on terms, and when he got the final hill properly, he got up faster than Van der Poel, but when he made a mistake on the penultimate lap, he was forced to chase back onto the Dutchman's wheel, giving Van der Poel the advantage of the lead on the final lap. After losing that lead, Van der Poel was quite dead set on regaining it, and shot down the inside of his foe at the entry to the final climb forcing Van Aert to dismount. In the knowledge that running while Van der Poel rode would lead to certain defeat, he came uncomfortably close to Van der Poel, forcing the Dutchman to run up the slope as well. With no lack of physical contact, the two rushed up the sandy climb side by side, and the race was set to finish in a sprint as the two hopped back onto their bikes. It was the bikes that made the difference, however, as Van der Poel shot off toward the finish line and victory, and Van Aert spun his legs with no result. His chain had fallen, and so had his hopes of victory, as he fixed his bike and coasted to a disappointed second.
Behind him, and not by a large margin, was Laurens Sweeck, who had a great weekend, winning Neerpelt due in large part to the absence of many of the top riders. He finished eleven seconds ahead of Jens Adams.
The women's race in Gieten was won by Sanne Cant, who is back to form after a disappointing showing in North America. She beat Lucinda Brand and Sophie De Boer into the lower spots on the podium. De Boer beat Laura Verdonschot and Nikki Brammeier the day before.
What did we Learn?
We can expect a battle between Van Aert and Van der Poel this season. They haven't really had many one-on-one duels in the past, but right now they seem to be on similar form, with neither out with injury, peaking for a different race, or absent due to being under twenty-three. So rather than all the races being dominated by one guy, perhaps we can at least have a fighting duopoly. I would tentatively posit that Van Aert is probably the slightest bit superior to Van der Poel on heavy courses, and maybe running, but they can hardly be separated in a sprint or flatter courses. Add in the variables of Van der Haar, Vanthourenhout, Pauwels and Meeusen, and it's impossible to know who will have the advantage. But if one of the two don't win at least nine out of every ten races they compete in, you can invite me to the beer and frites party for surprised people.
Oh, and in the women's events, we're unlikely to be as lucky. Expect to see Sanne Cant at the head of a lot of results sheets, unless Thalita De Jong shows up in the rainbow jersey.
What's Coming Up?
Ronse is coming up, that's what! Yes, it opens up the DVV Verzekeringen Trophy with one of the best courses around. While the weather looks sunny all week, meaning we should be in for a dry race, it is a course that can manufacture excitement no matter what, on the slopes of the Hotondberg. The fast descents are what should make the difference, but this one should still be between Van der Poel and Van Aert, even if Pauwels and Van der Haar stick their noses in. There's plenty of elevation, so I'll say Van Aert. In the women's race, I'll go for Verscheuren.