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The dunes and deep ruts of the infamous “kuil” Zonhoven sandpit made a return to the World Cup on Sunday for the first time since 2019.
Denise Betsema and Toon Aerts came out tops on the iconic Belgian circuit after the World Cup enjoyed its opening three rounds in the United States. Betsema’s win gave her the series lead in the women’s classification while Eli Iserbyt placed third to retain the leader’s jersey in the men’s.
Sand specialist Denise Betsema (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) lived up to her reputation with a dominant ride in the women’s race. She powered away from a small lead group in a faultless ride through the sand to take take a slim three-point lead over Lucinda Brand (Baloise-Trek) in the World Cup standings.
“I’m very happy. The white shirt [for World Cup leader] was never there before for me, so I’m really happy for this in the next race,” Betsema said. “It’s one of my favorite courses, to win here is very cool”
Betsema had moved into a front group of six in the opening lap as Puck Pieterse (Alpecin-Fenix) clung tenaciously on her wheel.
The senior Dutchwoman’s skills in the deep sand dunes and dusty strips of the Zonhoven circuit began to show through the first half of the race. The 28-year-old pulled away from the group and was never to be seen again as she rode solo to her first win of the 2021-22 World Cup.
Behind Betsema, Pieterse and Brand locked into a battle for second through the third and fourth laps.
Brand managed to pull away from her rival through the back-half of the race thanks to her superior descending skills and ability to turn on the afterburners on the tarmac sections. The world champ chased hard after Betsema, but the Pauwels-Sauzen rider was well out of range as she rode to a 46-second victory to claim her first win of the series.
Brand took second while Pieterse succumbed to a late chase from teammate Ceyline del Carmen Alvarado.
Alvarado was racing her first WorldCup of the series and suffered a slow start but surged away from a chase group in the final laps. She bridged across to the 19-year-old Pieterse and powered past her on one of the many sandy hills to take third.
Pieterse crossed the line in fourth, smiling and high-fiving fans down the finish straight.
Marianne Vos was not racing and so was unable to defend her series lead. North American racers Clara Honsinger and Maghalie Rochette have not yet made the trip across to Europe after racing the three events in the States.
World Cup Zonhoven: Women’s top-3
- Denise Betema (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal): 47:44
- Lucinda Brand (Baloise-Trek): +0:46
- Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado (Alpecin-Fenix): +1:08
Toon Aerts (Baloise-Trek) came out top after a scintillating men’s race on the dry, hard-packed sand.
Aerts had been distanced in the front-half of the race but was persistent in the chase, catching back to the lead group before working with teammate Lars van der Haar in the final to set up the winning move. His 10-second victory over van der Haar was his second win of the season, but his first in World Cup since the Iowa race in 2018.
“I didn’t expect this after 30 minutes of racing, “Aerts said. “I was always in front in the beginning and was trying to close the gap on Sweeck when he went away. Then I made a mistake and it was difficult to get back to the front of the group. At the end of the race I found two spots where I could make the difference and shifted to the front of the group.”
The action came down to a group of six after a series of attacks, chases, splits and reformations in the opening half of the race.
Laurens Sweeck (Pauwels-Sauzen) was the first to go out solo, riding away from the group in the second and third laps before the race came back together after van der Haar and Iserbyt led the chase.
Series-leader Iserbyt was next to take the lead before van der Haar bridged across in lap five. Behind the lead duo, Quinten Hermans (Tormans-Circus) was forced to chase as van der Haar’s teammate Aerts and Iserbyt’s teammates Sweeck and Michael Vanthoutenhout sat on.
Hermans was relentless and eventually pulled the race back together in lap seven to set up the final six-rider showdown,
Iserbyt began pressing in lap nine but was unable to detach from the group as van der Haar proved unshakable.
Aerts responded to his teammates’ pressure, powering away from the bunch over a shallow sandy rise. Aerts was able to press his advantage in the rutted climb that followed when he stayed on his bike as the chasers faltered and were forced into running.
“That moment when the guys had to run I was able to make a difference,” Aerts said.
The difference gave Aerts a gap of around 10-seconds in the final lap and the long-legged Belgian was able to use his big stride to push hard through the long run-ups that dominated the course. He crossed the line solo to take his first World Cup win of the season and his first in the competition in nearly three years.
Van der Haar attacked late in the final lap to nab second and make it a Trek-Baloise one-two. Iserbyt finished third, four seconds later, enough to see him retain his lead in the series.
None of Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and Tom Pidcock were racing as they recover after the road season.
World Cup Zonhoven: Men’s top-3
- Toon Aerts (Baloise-Trek): 58:58
- Lars van der Haar (Baloise-Trek): +0:10
- Eli Iserbyt: +0:14