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Van Aert punctured deep into the final lap, and all he could do is shake his head as Van der Poel coasted to victory. The Belgian still managed to finish second, but it wasn’t how it might have ended.
The duo powered away from the bunch early, and were matched evenly until the puncture in the back half of the bell lap took the wind out of Van Aert’s hopes to win.
“I decided not to celebrate at the finish line as I would have preferred to beat him without the puncture,” Van der Poel said. “The plan was to be the first to dive into the technical zone, but just before that Wout had a flat. It’s a pity he couldn’t defend his chances.”
The ‘Big Three’ reduced to the ‘Two Tenors’
Van Aert was back in the familiar position near the front in the opening lap in his “home” race. Van der Poel was hovering close, while Tom Pidcock did not start after he was recovering from injuries in his crash at Baal.
So the “Big Three” was reduced to the “Two Tenors” for the muddy duel in Herentals on Tuesday.
Van Aert led through the opening lap, with privateer Jens Adams surprisingly near the front, but not for long. Van der Poel dropped him to zero in on Van Aert on lap 2.
In lap 4 of eight, the “Two Tenors” were setting the tempo at the front. Van der Poel would surge to the front, before Van Aert would take over the pace. Neither could dare let a gap open between the two strongest riders in any race they start.
“Today I felt good, maybe the best man in the race, but it is not easy to knock someone of that class. I did try to gap Mathieu today,” Van Aert said. “In the first laps I had a few good passages on the Skiberg, but in the last laps I couldn’t get rid of Mathieu there. It might be a bit boring that we’re so evenly matched. We just ride around with the two of us.”
The bell lap saw Van Aert try one more time, but the stubborn Van der Poel was on his wheel. He surged past coming through the final pit area, and Van Aert shook his head as he realized he suffered a rear-wheel puncture.
“Today I rode differently than the previous races,” Van der Poel said. “I wanted to have something left over for the last half lap. We were evenly matched again today.”
Van Aert was left with only frustration after an otherwise flawless race.
“I punctured just before the aid station. I already felt that my bike started to slide. I hesitated for a while to switch, but then you have no chance for victory anyway,” Van Aert said. “The moment Mathieu came by, it felt like someone was pulling on my saddle.”
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Pieterse soloes to win, Brand takes over lead
Series leader Denise Betsema (Pauwels Sauzen Bingoal) missed a chance to defend when she punctured in the first lap. She would finish 10th later at the line.
That might not have mattered as Puck Pieterse (Alpecin-Deceuninck) powered clear to forge an early lead.
Behind her, Lucinda Brand (Baloise Trek Lions) hit out on another consistent performance, good enough to land her to second on the podium.
“I tried to ride technically as well and as fast as possible, although at a certain point you have to accept that you don’t go down that steep mountain in a clicked-in position,” Pieterse said at the line. “I was able to choose a bit of what I wanted to drive during the Christmas period. I already raced here in 2020 and so knew it was a nice race. That’s why I wanted to come back.”
There was a fight for the final spot on the podium, with Annemarie Worst (777) nudging ahead of Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado (Alpecin-Deceuninck) for third.
Canada’s Maghalie Rochette rode a fine race to finish eighth.
In the overall standings, Brand moved into the lead, with Betsema dipping into second despite starting with a big lead going into Tuesday’s race.
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