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A bullish victory on season debut at World Cup Hulst sees the Alpecin-Deceuninck dynamo hit the ground running and seemingly back to his blitzing best after 11 months away from ‘cross racing.
Yet Van der Poel forecast there’s still a lot more to come in a crucial cyclocross season focussed on regaining his world champion’s rainbow jersey.
“For me in cyclocross, it’s been a really long time,” he said Sunday. “I’m really happy to be back, but there’s still some work to do to be back at my top level. But I can only be happy with today.”
- Van der Poel blazes to victory on season debut at World Cup Hulst
- Van der Poel, Van Aert to resume decade-long rivalry this winter
Van der Poel played down his chances ahead of his home World Cup on Sunday. The Dutchman lost almost the entirety of last winter to back injuries and suffered a rollercoaster road season while attempting an ambitious grand tour double.
Long miles of training on the tarmac in Spain this autumn meant Van der Poel’s engine was revving hard ahead of his highly anticipated ‘cross debut in Hulst. But a long break from racing and still-niggling back problems put a question on his cyclocross form.
However, Van der Poel’s aggressive ride through the technical, hilly circuit Sunday made it look like he’d been racing since September.
After one error-prone lap, he stormed back from a 17-second deficit, rode away from Tom Pidcock and went on to win by more than 40 seconds after the world champion crashed out.
And rivals, be warned — Van der Poel said he’s only getting started in what was his first cyclocross win in 22 months.
“I had a good preparation coming toward Hulst. I’m really happy with the shape. Technically I made a lot of mistakes, but I think that’s normal,” he said.
“I need a few cyclocross races, but my shape is looking good. For me, I had good preparation in Spain, but I need more specific training in the ‘cross bike. I hope in the December period to be at my top level.”
Mathieu van der Poel immediately wins his first cyclo-cross of the season in Hulst! 🙌 What a performance by the former World Champion! 🌈 Laurens Sweeck 🥈 and Eli Iserbyt 🥉 join him on the podium. #CXWorldCup pic.twitter.com/QX8bU8OxQq
— UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup (@UCIcyclocrossWC) November 27, 2022
All eyes on Van Aert in Antwerp
Van der Poel is putting full priority on a return to the cyclocross world championships this winter.
The Hoogerheide race next February will see the Dutchman looking to regain his vice-grip on the rainbow jersey after a run of three-straight world titles came crumbling down last season.
Van der Poel was forced to sit out the 2021-22 Fayetteville world championships as rested his rickety back. With Van Aert also out of the U.S. race, Pidcock scored a scintillating victory in Fayetteville.
The upcoming ‘cross worlds could reverse the narrative.
Pidcock is uncertain if he will start as he prioritizes training for the spring classics, while Van der Poel and Van Aert both vowed to battle for the rainbow bands.
All eyes will be on Van Aert to check his early season form when he makes his winter debut and faces off against Van der Poel in Antwerp next weekend.
“This feels pretty good, it’s been a long while since I won a cyclocross race,” Van der Poel reflected Sunday.
He’ll want to carry that winning feeling all through winter.