Wout van Aert said he was surprised to take second in his first cyclocross outing of the season, beaten only by an impressive Mathieu van der Poel performance in the sand at Antwerpen.
The Jumbo-Visma star finished fourth at the Road World Championships just 10 weeks ago and is back after just five weeks training competing for cyclocross honours.
Van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) started his cyclocross season a week earlier and rode away from his Belgian rival on the second lap of the World Cup event to win by 23 seconds.
However, Van Aert said later that he was “satisfied” with an unexpected podium finish at the top level of cyclocross on his first outing.
“It was an unexpected podium result,” said the three-time elite World Champion. “I feel way better than I expected before, my pace during the race was quite steady which is a really good thing.”
“I surprised myself today. I didn’t think I’d be on the podium and keep up the pace for a whole race. I felt good and tried to drive just below my limit.”
Van Aert was the only rider who tried to follow an explosive early pace from Van der Poel with the duo pulling clear from the rest of the field, including Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers).
However, the speed of a determined Van der Poel was too high resulting for the Belgian who dropped back to the chasing group.
“When Mathieu was attacking he was way too fast and soon I understood I should focus on second place,” added Van Aert. “Mathieu’s attack was too intense and it was super-fast.
“You have to be at your best to stay close to him. I understood very quickly that his pace was too high. Then it was already very nice for me that I could hold off the rest for second place.”
Van Aert was briefly in a battle for second with European cyclocross champion Michael Vanthourenhout before gapping his opponent for the runner’s-up spot.
The Belgian national cyclocross champion did crash when attempting to bunny hop the barriers and the 28-year-old said he will have to practice his ‘cross skills.
“The course required a lot of technique and I didn’t make many silly mistakes that I felt like I could avoid,” added Van Aert. “So I’m satisfied with that.”
“One time I crashed on the barriers which was a shame. I was pretty much in control on the rest of the course, and I tried to race a bit under my limit to avoid too much mistakes.”
While Van der Poel heads to Spain for a road training camp Van Aert will be looking for a maiden cyclocross win of the season at the World Cup round in Dublin next weekend.
The Jumbo Visma rider will then head on a training camp before returning to the cyclocross field for Christmas races when he is set to meet Van der Poel on several occasions.
Both riders are targeting the World Cyclocross Championships in Hoogerheide on February 5.
“It’s a super start,” added Van Aert, “I now have five to six weeks of training in my legs. Add to that another five weeks and I’m a completely different athlete. I can certainly improve a lot.”
“In the coming weeks I want to train very well so that I can compete for a win in the Christmas period.”