Either Wout van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel would grab a fourth world title in Ostend on Sunday afternoon at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships. The pre-race favourites didn’t disappoint and finished 1-2, but not in the order the home fans, and Van Aert, hoped for.
Van Aert had the upper hand in the much-anticipated duel during the first half of the race, opening a gap of 20 seconds at one point. But a puncture on the third lap of the race ruined his day.
Van Aert was unable to keep the pressure on his Dutch rival and slowly faded away from the rainbow jersey. After the race, Van Aert blamed himself for giving up the chase for glory before the end of the race.
“During the two first laps it was clear that I was super. The puncture cost a lot of energy,” Van Aert said.
“At the World Championships everything has to go your way. The only thing I can blame myself for is that I lost heart. For some reason, I was no longer able to go through the wall after puncturing. Mentally, I cracked. That’s not something that I’m used at and I’m disappointed about that,” Van Aert said at the Sporza studio in Ostend, shortly after the race.
“I’m disappointed. At a certain moment I was in a beneficial situation but puncturing cost me a lot of time. I’m a bit disappointed in myself. I didn’t fight back like I’m normally able to do; I became discouraged. I’m disappointed,” he said. The downhearted Belgian noted he was aching to see his family, especially his new baby, Georges: “I’ve seen many people after the finish but not those that I want to see.”
Van Aert explained that a duel between the two of them often is decided by details and who hands out the first blow.
“Mathieu and I are a close match to each other. If one gets a bonus over the other, then that’s a big advantage as we’ve seen before on several occasions. If you’re in front then it’s no drama to make minor mistakes.
“I was in control and in the situation that I wanted to have. The puncture ruined my chances,” Van Aert said.
Van der Poel didn’t help his own situation by going over the handlebars at the end of the second lap.
“I heard the MC talk about it [on loudspeaker at course]. It was quite a crash and obviously I increased my lead because of it. I was putting Mathieu under pressure at that point and maybe that’s why he’s making a mistake.
“I come across as being very disappointed but obviously Mathieu is the deserved champion: half the race he was riding flawlessly and I didn’t come any closer so there’s nothing to play down about that,” Van Aert said.
While Van Aert rode by the second pit area during the third of eight laps, he noticed the puncture but was too late to enter the pit area. Behind him, Van der Poel broke his saddle in a crash and swapped bikes. From there, the Dutch rider closed the gap down on Van Aert, who tackled the technical part of the course with a front flat.
“I noticed that I punctured when riding by the pit area. It was slowly losing pressure. I think I lost half a minute due to the puncture.”
Blown engine ends comeback
Van Aert trailed Van der Poel by a dozen seconds but gained back time during the fourth and fifth laps. Halfway the fifth lap he came as close as three seconds when they were reaching the toughest part of the course, a section deep sand and then an ascent of 21 per cent gradient on the giant fly-over that connected the beach with the Hippodrome.
“I nearly came back in the race. On more time I came very close and then I blew up my engine. At the running section I went over the limit to come closer. In the following sand sections I had to run twice and then it was game over,” the silver medalist said.
“Maybe I should’ve taken another approach to take more time in trying to get back because I was completely dead at the bridge. In my head I was thinking that once Mathieu has 15 seconds then you come back to 13, then 16… you don’t come back. Then he has the control that I had before puncturing.
“Before puncturing I enjoyed a bonus of 20 seconds. In that case Mathieu would have to try something similar to close the gap down and he would start to make mistakes.”
The lack of home fans who would have shouted their support for Van Aert might have been a crucial factor, although he played that down.
“It would’ve been different but Mathieu missed out on his fans too. We knew for a few weeks that there would be no fans. We’re missing the fans and hopefully it can come back soon.”
When talking about the future, Van Aert saw a bright light and that was his road campaign with Jumbo-Visma.
“That’s the nice thing about cycling. There’s always another race. I’ll enjoy a week of recovery and then I’ll start working on future goals. Next year there’s again cyclo-cross, and then I’ll try again.”