Wout van Aert returned to cyclo-cross this weekend with a pair of podium finishes in Kortrijk and then the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup opener in Tabor, solid results competing in a field full of riders who have been racing for well over a month already.
On Saturday, after finishing third at Urban Cross in Kortrijk, the second round of the X2O Trofee, the Jumbo-Visma all-rounder said that he suffered during the race, his first action since taking second at the Tour of Flanders in October.
Starting from further back in the pack, Van Aert could float up the field as the race progressed, saving energy as he rode in the slipstream of other riders, he said.
"I suffered," he told Sporza after Saturday's race. "I made a good decision by keeping a low profile in the first half of the race but when I passed the second lap, I could feel the difference between following and making my own race.
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"I took so much advantage of being in someone's wake. That way I could move forward through the field smoothly."
Holding back a little at the start meant he could go harder in the final laps, battling Michael Vanthourenhout (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) and Lars van der Haar (Telenet Baloise Lions) for a podium spot.
"I'd have definitely signed up for this result beforehand. I didn't expect this. Though I have to be honest, the flat tyres from Vanthourenhout and Toon Aerts also played a role.
"Every race has a story, but it's nice to be on the podium right away."
He'd repeat the feat on Sunday in Tabor, having taken a private jet from Belgium to the Czech Republic for the race, along with several other riders.
His performance, at least by the numbers, improved a day late, finishing 12 seconds behind winner Vanthourenhout as European champion Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) took second.
Once again, Van Aert was forced to make up ground at the start before fighting for top positions in the closing laps. Rather than being in any semblance of top form, though, he said that it was grit and perseverance that were to thank for his end result.
"I was on the limit for the entire race," he said after the race. "I had to chase in the beginning, but I was fast.
"In the end, a little bit of guts and perseverance emerges, and that's how I got to the podium. But to win, there has to be something to go with that. This was more like character – it was really fighting."
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