Baloise Trek takes four wins on a cold, messy, thrilling weekend

The weather was ugly. The racing was beautiful.

The weekend’s highlight cyclocross races in Kortrijk and Besançon were nobody’s definition of “pleasant.” Temperatures touched freezing both days, and the World Cup race in Besançon on Sunday added wind and rain to create a confection of miserable conditions.

But in spite of the blasted weather, Baloise Trek riders thrived. Lucinda Brand came back from a Lap 1 crash to pip Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado by seven seconds at the X2O Trofee race in Kortrijk, then led from the first lap onward for a dominant solo victory in Besançon. Toon Aerts dueled Eli Iserbyt on back-to-back days, winning by 1:07 in Kortrijk and taking second by seven seconds in Besançon. And Pim Ronhaar, just 20 years old, earned his first career elite podium in Besançon, taking third by 1:44.

Lucinda Brand celebrating a hard battle in Kortrijk.

How Lucinda Brand racked up wins Nos. 6 and 7

Brand started the weekend in Kortrijk on her back foot. She crashed early in the race, and quickly fell towards the rear of a tight pack of riders. Coming back within a cyclocross race requires patience, impeccable technicality and, maybe most importantly, a massive engine. Brand showed off the full suite of attributes in picking her way up to the front of the race and locking in a fight with Alvarado and Denise Betsema.

Brand burned a lot of matches in the comeback, and after pulling away from her two rivals in the second half of the race, had to fend off a threatening effort from the duo to hold on for victory. After the race, Brand said her chase back to the front “cost me a lot of energy.” It was an impressive effort coming off a mildly disappointing third-place finish last Sunday in Koksijde.

Lucinda Brand making it 2-for-2 in Besançon.

Given how hard Brand had to work in Kortrijk, she’d have been forgiven for struggling in Besançon. Instead, she dominated on a grizzly day. Sometimes a picture tells the tale: Brand crossed the finish line caked in mud, but with her fists in the air and a smile on her face. No other riders were in frame. Brand established a gap on the first lap and, for the most part, wasn’t threatened again. Maghalie Rochette took second at 26 seconds back. Betsema was third at 34 seconds.

Brand extended her lead in the World Cup standings to 29 points over Betsema. In the X2O Trofee standings, she is second to Betsema by 1:33. No other rider in the field has been able to maintain Brand’s week-to-week consistency and determination. And she has plenty left to fight for over the second half of the cyclocross season.

Toon Aerts battling Eli Iserbyt in Besançon.

Toon Aerts rides away in Kortrijk

Aerts called it “one of those days you only have a few of each year.” On Saturday, he went solo from the start and held off all challengers for his third win of the season. In the process, Aerts also took over the top of the X2O Trofee standings, 43 seconds ahead of Iserbyt.

“The conditions of this weekend are those I like the most. Mud everywhere!” Aerts said after the race. “In the first lap, I immediately felt that this could be my day. I went very deep to get as big a gap as possible for the time classification.”

Toon Aerts through the cold, wind and rain.

Aerts nearly swept the weekend. In Besançon, he once again pushed the pace early, but Iserbyt was game to follow. The two carved out a gap from the pack then began testing each other’s legs. During the penultimate lap, as rain began to fall more heavily, Aerts appeared to be wearing down Iserbyt, only to fall on a tricky descent turn. Iserbyt had a small lead heading into the final lap, and hung on for a close result.

“On Sunday my legs were a bit tired, but the track suited me well, and gave me hope,” Aerts said. “This race was a battle from start to finish. The crash after my all-in attack put me in trouble following Iserbyt. But the disappointment changed quickly when I saw Pim getting third!”

Pim Ronhaar proving he can compete on an elite stage.

Pim Ronhaar breaks through on elite stage

Just 1:44 behind Aerts, Baloise Trek teammate Pim Ronhaar took third for his first ever elite podium finish. Ronhaar battled with Michael Vanthourenhout, who has eight podiums this season, throughout the race, and pulled away on the last lap to beat him by 13 seconds.

“A third-place podium spot in such a big race with elite men — like Toon, Eli and almost all the big names — it’s really incredible,” Ronhaar said after the race. “The course suited me very well. I love courses like this. It’s muddy, it’s power. You need a big engine for this race, and I have one.”

Ronhaar also won the U23 event in Kortrijk, 24 seconds ahead of Great Britain’s Cameron Mason and Belgium’s Joran Wyseure.

“I still can’t believe it, but we need to train hard and hopefully there will be a lot more podiums with the elites in the next two years.”