28.1.2021 door Katy Madgwick, Katy's opinions
Previously on Wout Gets Cross: Wout won! The schedule was packed! I failed to understand who was riding where!
Still embroiled within the thrilling festive schedule, 2021 began, and as if to banish the ghost of 2020, there was a race a day for the first three days to brush away the cobwebs. The year began on New Year’s Day in Baal, where I once again had no clue who to expect on the start line; the only positive indication I could find was a still of Wout warming up in front of a giant rubber duck, blending in a little more than the other riders in his TJV yellow. They really like those rubber ducks, don’t they?
Tom Pidcock led the New Year’s Day charge on a parcours that featured a bumpy section that made the riders look like a bunch of perky meerkats, and MVDP struck out behind the Brit leaving Wout adrift in the early part of the race. He closed the gap though and through the mid-section of the race used a Pidcock/MVDP double pit as his opportunity to strike out into the lead. The group, completed by Eli Iserbyt, stayed together with Wout in front until the following pit where roles were reversed, with Wout taking a bike but losing his lead to Pidcock and Iserbyt. Still, MVDP remained behind, and the tension grew.
Lap 5 of 7 and still no-one had pulled clear; in fact, Michael Vantourenhout had joined on to make it five in the leading group. It was by far the tensest clash of the season so far, but as he so often does, MVDP decided enough was enough and passed Pidcock to take the lead and immediately put his foot on the gas to stretch away from his rivals, and eventually for the win.
Next up was the World Cup fixture in Hulst. It felt like an age since we’d seen the riders smeared from head to toe in mud and hopes were high as the competitors set off that we might be in for a squelchy one. Wout might not have been so keen given he was wearing the white of the World Cup leaders’ jersey, and the parcours on the Dutch coast was less than inspiring despite the chance of mud splatterings.
The race was uneventful until a disaster bike change saw Wout adrift of the leading group, and it wasn’t long before MVDP drew out his characteristic lead, and with seven laps still to go it was a dominant one of over 40 seconds. Wout teamed up with Pidcock to work together on reeling the Dutchman back in on his home turf but it was not to be, and despite taking second place on the podium, Wout finished a minute and a half adrift of his rival.
I bid a sad farewell to the cross for a couple of weeks as a lack of coverage would prevent me keeping in touch with the action live, a fact which filled me with existential dread in a month that was already proving to be about ten times as long as a regular one.
I followed along on Twitter with the action at the Belgian national championships at Meulebeke the following weekend. Wout cruised to victory just six days after the birth of his new son Georges, and accepted a teeny replica Belgium kit as he took to the podium, seemingly the happiest man alive despite admitting to not having slept very much.
The following weekend, the Zilvermeercross in Mol was marked by a frantic scramble to find dodgy online streams that would enable me to get my fix. It had been two weeks with no cross and things were looking desperate. Yet my internet provider’s stringent firewall proved too strong. It was a comfort to know that Wout was busy doing the same over in Belgium, fittingly winning his first ever race in the national kit, but I had no news as to the nature of his victory and would have to wait yet another agonising week for more action. One thing was certain: Wout was growing in confidence and this positive trajectory would be vital heading into the business end of the season.
Before the cross, came good news. During the Team Jumbo Visma training camp in Alicante, Wout signed his contract extension, made a hilarious video, and disclosed his programme for the season, and these precious morsels were enough to keep me going until the weekend. Wout travelled back home to Belgium for another double-headed weekend of cross action, and I was ready to break my drought.
One might be concerned that riders going away on training camps and returning to plough up and down a muddy field might be carrying a little fatigue in the legs, but such notions of weakness were swiftly banished as the usual suspects took their place at the head of the field in Hamme on the Saturday, for the next instalment of the X20 trophy. The most tiring element as a spectator was keeping up with the costume changes, as Wout switched Jumbo Visma yellow once again for his national kit.
MVDP ducked and wove up and down the winding course with its makeshift turns and numerous off-camber sections without looking back – he meant business and wasn’t messing about. Score 1-0 to Mathieu. It was definitive but unlike in previous encounters, Van Der Poel was unable to increase the lead he pulled out over Wout. The rest of the field slipped back and but the man in black and yellow – and red – was never more than 19 seconds or so adrift, and went over the line just seven seconds after his rival. Perhaps a sign that the difference between them was closing?
Sunday’s race in Overijse was the final round in the World Cup, and with a lead over everyone else in points, there were a number of mathematical possibilities that meant Wout didn’t technically have to win the race, to win the World Cup. But that’s not how we roll, is it? Each cyclocross race is a clean slate and every rider wants their name to be in the number 1 position at the end of it.
The parcours was arguably the most varied and dramatic of the season so far. With an uphill road section, cobbles, and a couple of devastatingly steep muddy inclines, the riders had to be firing on all cylinders. Following a big crash off the start line this was not a day for mistakes, and, back in the white and red World Cup jersey, Wout had clearly found his confidence, as it was less than three minutes before he hit the front of the race. Predictably, less than a minute later he had company in the form of guess who, and by the end of lap one the two were fifteen seconds clear of all but Tom Pidcock, busy trying to claw his way back to the formidable duo.
It was a tense affair until the end of lap two, somewhere around the giant bunch of grapes, when Wout appeared suddenly to be making significant gains over his rival. The reason quickly became clear: Mathieu had a puncture. Unlucky timing too, with the pit still a way off. By the time he’d picked up a new bike Wout had opened up a gap, and was even able to take a spill into the mud himself on a sketchy corner without it causing any major drama.
Like a mirror image of the previous day’s race, Wout held Mathieu at arms’ length, maintaining a lead of around twenty seconds. He had the measure of the course, and was giving it everything. Mathieu came within fifteen seconds as they moved into lap seven of eight but had a fall, unusually bad luck befalling the Dutchman and allowing Wout to banish any doubt that might have remained. This was his day. He won the race convincingly and along with it the World Cup, and psychologically dealt a blow to his rival on the final weekend before the big one: the World Championships in Ostend.
This brings us bang up to date and after a few days of suspense when we held our breath to find out whether or not the competition would go ahead due to a local outbreak of covid-19, now just a few days separate us from the ultimate battle. Has Wout has found his best form just at the right time, or will MVDP be able to dominate once again? Perhaps, with a completely different course comprising a high bridge and a long sandy run along the seafront, the field will be shaken up by other contenders. All that’s left to say is good luck to Wout and I’ll see you all on the other side.