Brand wins twice, Aerts and Van der Haar podium during unforgettable weekend

From sprints to winter storms, Saturday and Sunday showcased everything cyclocross has to offer

Toon Aerts, a hardened veteran of cyclocross racing at 27 years old, summarized the weekend succinctly:

“This weekend we have two different kinds of races. Saturday was very fast, and Sunday was very slow. But the conclusion: Cyclocross is always hard.”

Telenet-Baloise came away with plenty of accolades — Lucinda Brand won twice, while Toon Aerts and Lars van der Haar took a third-place finish apiece — but it wasn’t easy. Saturday’s Superprestige event in Heusden-Zolder was fast and sunny, ending with a rare four-person sprint in the women’s race. Sunday’s World Cup race in Dendermonde was the exact opposite: Wet, cold and brutally slow thanks to Winter Storm Bella.

“This is a race that you’re never going to forget in the coming years,” Brand said about Dendermonde. “I just realized, I think I haven’t touched my brakes at all today. So that tells a bit about how it was on the course.”

Here’s how a huge weekend of cyclocross unfolded.

Lucinda Brand celebrates a sprint victory in Heusden-Zolder.

Brand outduels Alvarado and gets back to winning

The holiday period is traditionally full of white-knuckle cyclocross, and 2020 was no different. On Wednesday, women’s racing commenced with a tight battle between Brand and defending World Champion Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, which Alvarado won by 19 seconds on a technically-demanding course.

The weekend continued what has been a tooth-and-nail fight between the two riders all season.

In Heusden-Zolder, Brand had to be flawless. The fast conditions and short, punchy climbs gave little ground for decisive attacks. Brand was at the front of the race almost from the start, drawing out an elite group of riders in Alvarado, Annemarie Worst, Denise Betsema and Inge Van Der Heijden, but the five riders struggled to create separation amongst themselves from then on.

Brand accelerated at the start of the final lap, and again before a section of stairs. Both times, she briefly put Alvarado and company in difficulty, only to have them claw back onto her wheel — only Van Der Heijden would fall away. Four riders entered the tarmac home stretch together after a grass descent, and there was nothing left to do except hammer away. Brand would cross the line with arms in the air ahead of Alvardo in second, Worst in third and Betsema in fourth, with no time gap given between them.

Lucinda Brand plugging her way through the mud in Dendermonde.

Then came Dendermonde. It was a difficult day even before racing started.

“Even before we were on the course it was crazy with the wind, and we had to find a place where you didn’t blow away,” Brand laughed. “We hid behind someone living there on the road. The recon of the course, it was already so muddy and tough. It was more like a run with your bike, instead of riding your bike.”

Brand won by 15 seconds over second-place Clara Honsinger and 24 seconds over third-place Alvarado, but the race was far from easy. Brand led the race after the first lap, helped in part by bad starts for Alvarado and Honsinger. But Alvarado gave a determined effort to catch and then overtake Brand on the second lap, eventually opening up a 10-second advantage.

The course consisted of four laps, each more difficult than the last as bicycles chewed up the earth. Alvarado appeared to have a potentially decisive lead but then the course ensnared her, pulling her down to her knee in mud on a descent where riders were forced to run. Brand would take the lead back late in the third lap and stay ahead, proving she was the most adept rider at avoiding that day’s sinkholes and pitfalls.

“It was a real fight, mostly with yourself and not with the other riders, just to keep your bike going,” Brand said. “Crazy day, actually. And of course, super happy to win the race.”

Lars van der Haar plowing through the sand in Heusden-Zolder.

Van der Haar and Aerts take a podium apiece

The weekend was particularly sweet for Van der Haar, who took his first podium in nearly a month with a big acceleration out of a chasing group in Heusden-Zolder. He finished third, just one second behind second-place Wout van Aert and 39 seconds behind winner Mathieu van der Poel. As in Herentals, where Aerts took third, the standings were densely-packed, with just 29 seconds separating 10th-place Daan Soete from a podium spot.

“It was a nice course for me, had a good race,” Van der Haar said. “I was really happy to come out in third place in such a technical race. That really pleased me, and that also shows for myself that the form is still good.”

Aerts finished seventh on the day after recovering from a crash on the opening lap. Then the next day, he bounced right back onto the podium. And just like Van der Haar, he fell just shy of silver, this time by 17 seconds to Van der Poel. Aerts was part of a strong group of chasers for much of the day before going solo on the final lap, ultimately taking 36 seconds on fourth-place Michael Vanthourenhout. Van Aert would win the race by 2:49.

Toon Aerts scrapping his way to a podium finish in Dendermonde.

Telenet-Baloise dominate the standings

With a seventh-place finish Saturday, Aerts vaulted to the top of the Superprestige series standings ahead of second-place Eli Iserbyt, who did not finish the race after crashing into barriers.

Aerts, who has won two UCI World Cup overall titles, has never won the Superprestige series, and has reached the final podium just once, when he finished second overall during the 2018-19 season. With just one race left in the series — on Feb. 6 in Middelkerke — Aerts is in good position to win the title and take home a well-earned prize as perhaps the most consistent rider in a chaotic men’s field.

Aerts currently sits in third place on the X2O Badkamers Trofee standings with four races left in the series, and fourth place on the World Cup standings with two races left. He is aiming to take the final podium of all three competitions in the same season for the second time in his career.

Brand, meanwhile, currently holds the top spot on the World Cup, Superprestige and X2O Badkamers Trofee standings. She has never finished on the final podium, much less won, any of the competitions in her career.

The 2020-21 season has already been unforgettable for Brand. Sweeping three of cyclocross’ biggest prizes would be a delicious cherry on top.

Lucinda Brand atop the podium in Heusden-Zolder between Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado (left) and Annemarie Worst (right).