Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) claimed his first UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup victory since Pontchâteau in 2019, dominating in the sloppy ankle-deep mud in Dendermonde.
World champion Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) finished a distant second with Toon Aerts (Telenet-Baloise) in third.
Winter storm Bella had lashed Europe with heavy rain and high winds, forcing organisers to remove the flyover bridge from the course and, after the women sank knee-deep into a mud bog, further modified the course to remove the worst section.
There was still ample muck, cold rain and misery ahead for the riders over the hour-long race, however.
Van der Poel took the hole shot but was overtaken in the melee by Quinten Hermans (Tormans). Van Aert moved quickly into third but had to overcome a first-lap clash with Corne van Kessel (Tormans) that lost him several positions.
Van Aert steadily worked his way back through the traffic and onto Van der Poel’s wheel before coming to the front on the second lap and pulling his rival clear.
By the third lap it was clear that Van Aert had the better handle on the challenging course conditions and he began to forge an unassailable gap over Van der Poel.
Behind, the fight for the final podium position changed constantly, with Tom Pidcock (Trinity) losing ground after riding with the front group on the opening lap and eventually dropping out.
Aerts worked his way up through the chasers to move into third on the fourth lap.
By lap six, World Cup leader Michael Vanthourenhout (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) emerged from the chasing group to challenge Aerts for the podium but couldn’t quite get on terms.
Meanwhile, with the race one lap longer than humanly possible, darkness falling in the dismal weather, and only the bright yellow helmets of the Tormans riders visible in the mist, Van Aert had opened up a gap of 2:14 over Van der Poel as the bell rang for another miserable slog around the course.
Aerts, trying desperately to get some feeling back in his fingers, came across 18 seconds behind the world champion with a 16 second lead on Vanthourenhout.
There was no ground to be made up on the last lap, and Van Aert ended the day with 2:49 on Van Aert with Aerts third at 3:06. Vanthourenhout held on for fourth ahead of Laurens Sweeck (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal).
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