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It took an untimely puncture from world champion Mathieu van der Poel to make the difference between Van Aert and his long-time rival in a close duel through the sloppy mud Wednesday, but the Belgian was ruthless in executing the win.
“I was given half a minute as a gift and then kept in control from then,” Van Aert said. “It was important not to make any more mistakes. It is of course nicer when there is a battle, but this is part of it.”
Van Aert admitted he didn’t immediately realize van der Poel had punctured as he stormed away. Nonetheless, the victory puts a cap on a short season of five races that has seen the Jumbo-Visma star improving with every performance while having to contend with van der Poel firing on full cylinders and young contender Tom Pidcock’s relentlessly aggressive tactics.
For Van Aert, a win’s a win, and a timely confidence boost ahead of a series of festive ‘crosses in the next week, all with a long view to the world championships on January 31. His victory in Herentals was his first cyclocross win since February.
“It’s certainly good to get a win – it’s been a while,” Van Aert said. “I feel that I can get a lot better. I love to race and I also feel that the ‘cross feeling is coming back more and more.”
Van Aert explained that he felt nervous riding on a circuit that was just kilometers from his home. Those pre-race anxieties likely were not eased by a muddy wipeout in the recon ahead of the race.
“I really wanted to win here and was nervous before the start. I even lost my glasses and numbers after the reconnaissance,” Van Aert said. “Why did I start the cross with nerves? It is hard to explain.”
Total wipe Wout! Do you think Wout Van Aert is regretting his decision to race cyclocross in the cold and wet instead of a warm sunny training camp? Don't miss the next round of the X2O Trofee from Wouts hometown of Herentals on Race Pass TODAY https://t.co/puoH0Jzri1 pic.twitter.com/Um7B71sM7D
— GlobalCyclingNetwork (@gcntweet) December 23, 2020
Van Aert’s victory in Herentals now leaves cyclocross’ “big three” each with a victory to their name after Pidcock won in Gavere and van der Poel landed a season hat trick with his ride in Essen this week.
As the yo-yo battle between van der Poel and Van Aert before the Dutchman’s puncture proved Wednesday that there’s little between the two long-time rivals, and Pidcock is not far behind. Though the trio’s schedules keep changing, they’re likely to come head to head again before they know it, with Superprestige Zolder and the World Cup Dendermonde looming this weekend, December 26 and 27.
“Mathieu races almost everything and I will see him everywhere,” Van Aert said. “And then we also have Tom Pidcock. I don’t think the differences between us will change immediately. We are not far apart in terms of level.”
Van Aert is next expected to race in Zolder on Saturday.