by Kyle Moore

LEUVEN, Belgium — Thus far this season, the Soudal Classics have been a chance for some different cyclocross faces to get the chance to shine at the front of races. Earlier in the Women’s race, Loes Sels added her second straight Soudal win at Sunday’s race in Leuven. Corne van Kessel (Telenet Fidea Lions) also won last month in Hasselt and was looking to double his Soudal fun on Sunday.

With Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert headlining the list of names taking the weekend off of racing, Van Kessel was able to capitalize on the string of solid top fives he has tallied in the major cups this season and take home a win. Van Kessel mastered the wind and cold in Leuven on an afternoon that managed to avoid the wet mud seen at recent races like the GP Sven Nys in Baal on Monday.

Clement Venturini (AG2R – La Mondiale) was a fresh 2018 sighting on the Leuven course. The French ’cross champion re-emerged after a breakout season a year ago and was sporting a new brown AG2R-La Mondiale knit cap to go with his French Tricolore. He overcame a mid-race mishap to finish a solid second.

Vanthourenhout took a tough tumble at the barriers in the GP Sven Nys on New Year’s Day, but he seemed unaffected by the crash and rode an active race for third. Vanthourenhout’s podium, and teamwork with his Marlux-Bingoal teammates Kevin Pauwels and Eli Iserbyt, marked one of the high points of the season for a team that has struggled to get the results it saw during the 2016/17 season.

Corne van Kessel won at Hasselt and then won again on Sunday at Leuven. © B. Hazen / Cyclocross Magazine

Corne van Kessel won at Hasselt and then won again on Sunday at Leuven. © B. Hazen / Cyclocross Magazine

Vying for Early TV Time

Venturini put the French campion’s jersey on display early, leading into the first turn and pulling Telenet Fidea Lions youngster Thijs Aerts with him. Sieben Wouters (Pauwels Sauzen-Vastgoedservice) also gave chase early, but a chain problem on the second lap lost him five spots and his prime position near the front of the race.

After the early pleasantries, Van Kessel, Venturini and Pauwels took charge, with Gianni Vermeersch (Steylaerts-Betfirst) leading a group of several others looking for the ample television time that was up for grabs in a race missing Van der Poel and Van Aert.

Vanthourenhout, perhaps feeling his way through the early laps and testing the post-crash waters, indeed found his way through the third lap. He moved into a solo fourth place as the fourth lap began and Iserbyt took over the lead role in the large chase behind him.

The Race Shakes Up

The fourth lap is when the tenor of the race changed. The front group was shaken up when Pauwels slid out on a downhill right-hander. Vanthourenhout moved up to third alongside his teammate as Pauwels recovered, while Van Kessel and Venturini moved off the front thanks to Pauwels’ misfortune.

During the next lap, Venturini made a mistake that would shape the rest of the race. On a dirt dip that riders were hopping in one bound, the Frenchman mistimed his leap and dug his front wheel into the landing, a mistake that cost him ten seconds and allowed Pauwels and Vanthourenhout to catch up. Adding insult to injury, Venturini then had a sloppy pit exchange that put him on the ropes. Van Kessel would not be seen again.

After Venturini’s mishap, Van Kessel was solo off the front. Five laps in, Pauwels and Vanthourenhout were 13 seconds adrift, Venturini was 16 seconds back and Iserbyt had come forward by himself at 27 seconds behind Van Kessel.

As the race progressed into its final stanza, the three-man chase of Vanthourenhout, Pauwels and Venturini became less of a chase and more of a tutorial for the young Iserbyt. When Iserbyt got within sight, Vanthourenhout slowed the pace on a section of asphalt to allow the U23 star to pull close to him and Pauwels. The smaller Iserbyt struggled with some of Leuven’s larger jumps, but he was also able to climb steeper ravine sections in the saddle when others were dismounting. Iserbyt would go on to finish fifth.

With the laps counting down, Pauwels slipped on a dirt run-up, giving Venturini and Vanthourenhout the gap they needed for a run at the podium. Van Kessel took the bell with 17 seconds in hand and held it to the end, flashing another Soudal smile at the line.

Venturini held on for second and Vanthourenhout took third.

Racing with bib number one, Van Kessel said afterward that he was feeling the pressure. “Starting as a favorite is the hardest thing there is, but I managed to make it happen,” the Telenet Fidea rider told Sporza at the finish (translated). “Venturini was strong, but I was able to get rid of him after he made a mistake.”

Venturini was pressuring Van Kessel early, but the crucial bobble on the fifth lap allowed the Belgian to escape.

“This is my first ’cross of the season in Flanders,” Venturini told Sporza (translated). “I had to adjust to the level. I experienced everything, with a few slips and falls, but I’m happy with my podium. I have to recapture my French champion’s jersey. That is the main goal of my season,” he said.

Andrew Juiliano (Grit World Racing p/b Shimano) was the sole American male at Leuven. He finished 23rd.

Men's Results: 2018 Soudal Classics Leuven

RankBIBLast NameFirst NameCountryResult
11VAN KESSELCorneNED0:59:59
99VAN DER POELDavidNED1:01:19
2425MÖBISMaximilianGER-3 LAPS
2731SMITHNicholasAUS-5 LAPS
2935OGERVincentBEL-6 LAPS