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Kerstperiode O/T: Game On!

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Cyclocross’ biggest week lives here

Marianne Vos and Eva Lechner climb the Zolder stairs
Corbis via Getty Images

Yo, some notes and a place for your cross chatter as the Big Week progresses...

I guess he was sick after all

Mathieu van der Poel got right back to his old dominant ways yesterday with a solo win in the Heusden-Zolder World Cup cyclocross event, kicking off the Kerstperiode (Christmastime), the peak of the season before it devolves into jockeying for psychological positioning at Worlds. The Dutch champ and World Cup leader (all but assured of the year-long title) fought back from a small five-second gap to World Champion Wout Van Aert, when for just a moment it looked like the Belgian had him on the ropes again, following that dominant win nine days earlier in Namur.

But on that day van der Poel said his lungs were full of fluid from a head cold that migrated to his chest, and if the Van Aert fans didn’t want to believe that “excuse,” they are forced to reckon with it now. Van der Poel says he spent three days in bed and reluctantly skipped Sint Niklaas this past weekend to get himself fit for Zolder, and he needed all of about two laps of the course to kick back into gear. At the end of lap 2, he closed the small gap to Van Aert, then proceeded to get clear himself half a lap later, never to be seen again.

Mathieu van der Poel in the Zolder sand
Corbis via Getty Images

Van Aert had come off a pair of wins, including that Waaslandcross in Sint Niklaas, one of cycling’s iconic places as the former start city of the Tour of Flanders, so his third place (conceding second to Laurens Sweeck in the sprint) and 33-second loss is a bit ominous. Better results this week might put his fans at ease and show that he has in fact raised his game after a two-week training period in Spain earlier this month. Another factor not to be overlooked was the speed of the course yesterday in Zolder, where there has been little rain to soften things up and create the heavy conditions in which the World Champion excels. It remains foolish to write off his chances at a third rainbow jersey on February 5 in Valkenburg, and will remain so until we see van der Poel (or someone else) (I know) pull on the stripes. But van der Poel has shown that thus far only crashes, mechanical problems and the odd sick day can hold him back. Van Aert has yet to beat him at full strength.

Yes She Cant

On the women’s side, Sanne Cant extended her own brilliance in the World Cup events with a winning sprint after a final-lap three-way duel with Katie Compton and Eva Lechner, taking a close event from the American. Cant has been strong all year, but Compton is slowly moving up the rankings, and it will be interesting to see if she can find that last little bit more to get by the Belgian on home soil this week. Tall order, of course, and at 39 she is defying the limits of human aging just to be in the conversation. But two of her four wins this year were in Belgium (Ronse and Kruibeke), so as usual she can’t be overlooked. Cant extended her virtually unassailable World Cup lead over Kaitlin Keough and will surely bring home the title in Nommay next month.

Cant wins in Zolder
Corbis via Getty Images

Proud as a Pidcock

The U23 race went to Britain’s Tom Pidcock in a tight sprint over World Cup leader Eli Iserbyt, in a battle of speed versus power where speed won by about half a bike length. Pidcock has been the story of the year, and at 18 years his future is unimaginably bright, including a 2018 plan that will see him riding cross for Sven Nys’ Telenet Fidea Lions as well as Team Wiggins on the road. But Iserbyt looked less wobbly on the hardest parts of the course, and a tougher track in Valkenburg or anywhere else will guarantee some fair fights between these two.

Notes

Hahahahahkillmenow... Today on Twitter the following was noted:

The response by van der Haar was typical, a laughing/crying emoji face -- van der Haar seems like a relentlessly friendly and good-natured person from his public persona — but you have to feel for the guy. He came on at the tail end of the Nys-Stybar-Albert years but wasn’t quite ready for greatness by 2014, when the race was held in Hoogerheide, and by 2015 van der Poel took the title and ended the career hopes of everybody except Van Aert and maybe, just maybe, a few lucky up-and-comers who can hang around long enough waiting for one or both of them to crack or move on from the sport.

This tweet signifies that van der Haar is at the head of that group of champions-in-waiting, a dubious honor at age 26, but the Dutchman still possesses perhaps the best pure speed in the peloton and is a threat to pull off a big surprise on his best day. So far his best day against the UberKids was his second place at the 2016 Worlds, when van der Poel faltered and van der Haar had Van Aert on the ropes late in the race. At this point, however, his chances seem to come down to whether they will ever award the Worlds to Las Vegas, the ultimate disgraceful grassy crit course where blinding speed is about all that’s required. Of course, that isn’t likely to happen and if it does I will be put in the uncomfortable position of having lovely Belgium declare war on my home country. So I am not for this.

And then there are the problems approaching van der Haar from behind, such as just-24-year-old Sweeck, who put 30 seconds into him yesterday. And Daan Soete, just now 23, who was up the road from van der Haar much of the day. And Toon Aerts, 24 and the reigning European Champion until last month when van der Poel snatched the title away. And many others. So many others...

National Pride ... Dutch women have been a dominant force all year in cycling, but they slipped to third overall in the CX World Cup nation rankings after this weekend, with the US moving up to second behind Belgium. The US has been bolstered all season by Kaitlin Keough, who was on the podium of the first three World Cup races before slipping backward recently, only for Compton to assert her indomitable will once again, with young Ellen Noble pitching in as well. But the Dutch may not be down for long, as former national, continental and world champion Thalita de Jongh is set to return from a horror season of injury and resume racing in Baal on January 1.

This and that... Hey, the winning time for Sanne Cant was over 42 minutes! The scandal of Namur and its shortened event was the subject of much discussion last week, and thankfully the race organizers managed to not repeat the previous week’s error, when Evie Richards won in a 38-minute affair that all agreed was a lap too short. [Richards didn’t start Zolder.] ... van der Poel extended his contract for two years with his present squad, currently called Beobank for a few more days when the team will be re-christened Circus. Start your jokes now, before van der Poel can show you what he thinks of them. The nub of it is that he wants to focus on the MTB Olympics in 2020 and will use a schedule of off-road stuff with road racing mixed in when possible. Van der Poel made it clear that he considers an Olympic medal an ultimate goal, and his road career, whatever it might be, probably doesn’t hold much promise there. But by the 2021 Tour of Flanders we should see what he has in that discipline, I guess.

Corbis via Getty Images

Next up is Azencross, a pretty tame event as these things go, and with scant precipitation it figures to be a fast course again. Last year van der Poel crashed out heavily, though was OK. And that was the second-most-memorable scene from the race, after this:

Any good hockey fan can tell you, we penalize the part we see, not what came before, so hopefully the kid in the red had a pretty good excuse for his parents. Look for a rematch tomorrow; it’s what cycling fans everywhere want to see.