Wout van Aert was left to rue what could have been after a puncture cost him the chance to thwart Mathieu van der Poel's third rainbow jersey in a row at the Cyclocross World Championships.
After riding the first lap together, Van Aert began to distance his rival on the second run of the sand section, then extending his gap after a spectacular crash upended Van der Poel on a muddy chicane.
Everything looked to be going wrong for the defending champion but a puncture for Van Aert allowed the Dutchman back in, and after being overtaken the Belgian wouldn't see him again until the finish line.
"I am disappointed in myself because I have not fought back the way I normally can," Van Aert told Sporza.
"At one point I was in a favorable situation but riding with a puncture took a lot of time...it wasn't immediately flat either, but a slow puncture. Anyway, I lost half a minute there. Eventually, I did get closer to Mathieu, but then I exploded…
"I was in the situation that I wanted, but the flat tire wasted my chances."
Van Aert says he didn't mentally recover from the puncture and that he couldn't sustain the effort needed after changing bike to catch Van der Poel.
"I think after two laps you could see that I was great. The flat tire cost me, but everything has to go well. I can only blame myself that I could no longer go through the wall after the flat tire. Something broke mentally and I am especially disappointed about that.
"He is the deserved champion," Van Aert admitted. "He rode strongly in the second part, while I didn't get any closer."
Although Van der Poel proved stronger after continuing to extend his gap to the finish line, the Dutchman knows that without his rival's puncture it could have been a very different story.
"I'm lucky that Wout punctures to [allow me to] come back because I don't know if I would have come back otherwise," Van der Poel conceded.
"The race was certainly not lost at the time. I got better lap by lap and mastered the course better and better. Then I felt like I was in control in the second half."
Van der Poel takes his third CX world title in a row, fourth overall, and will now look forward to his first-ever Paris-Roubaix as he switches his focus to road racing, as well as defending his Tour of Flanders title.
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