What's Cool In Road Cycling

Key Takeaways: Cyclocross Worlds, Volta Valenciana & Étoile de Bessèges

Breaking down the key moments from a thrilling CX World Championships & some thrilling, and incredibly difficult, early season road racing.

Key Takeaways: It might still be early in the season but the last weekend produced an extremely wide array of racing with elite riders in top form. Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel duked it out at the Cyclocross World Champions, while the veteran Rui Costa schooled the kids at Volta Valenciana and Neilson Powless continued a fantastic run of form with a razor-thin overall win at Etoile de Bessèges.

– This article is an excerpt from the Beyond the Peloton newsletter. Sign up here for full access. –

worlds cross 2023
Van der Poel came out on top

Catch up with a few of the major takeaways from each of these events below:

Cyclocross World Championships (Feb 5th)

Final Lap Analysis:
After Van Aert appeared to be struggling to hold Van der Poel’s wheel through the first half of the race, both riders settled into a pace and have been riding essentially in tandem for the entirety of the race. Heading into the last half of the final lap, Van Aert takes advantage of a lull in the pace to get in front of Van der Poel in an attempt to block/blunt the attack he expects is coming.


As they head over the barriers, Wout’s positioning gives him a much-needed cushion (since Van der Poel is much quicker through the section) and means MvdP isn’t able to open a gap. However, Van Aert clearly expected MvdP to attack here and when he didn’t, Van Aert seems surprised, slightly confused, and without a plan.


This confusion shows when Van Aert slowly rolls into the final straight despite having a massive advantage in the lead position giving him and the win likely going to the first rider to open their sprint.


With Van Aert still slow pedaling, MvdP opens an explosive sprint and once he gets a slight gap, Van Aert is unable to overtake, or just pull even, with MvdP, who rides away to his 5th career CX World Title.


Mathieu van der Poel +0
2) Wout van Aert +0
3) Eli Iserbyt +12

Key Takeaways:

1) Mathieu Van der Poel won the race by winning the mental battle

  • Van Aert was hurting early on, and seemed a little shaken by how strong Van der Poel was, and when an attack from Van der Poel didn’t come over the barriers on the last lap, he was thrown off and made a mistake scrubbing too much speed coming into the final straight, which allowed Van der Poel to get a gap with his initial burst.
    • This was a fatal mistake since Van der Poel is a much faster sprinter from a slow roll (Flanders 2020) while Van Aert is faster from a high speed.
    • To capitalize on this, Van Aert needed to keep the speed as high as possible when the move didn’t come and tried to open up the sprint first.

The big CX rivalry

2) This might settle the CX rivalry, but this race teased an incredible battle between Van Aert & Van der Poel during the 2023 road season

  • Van der Poel’s win now pushes his WC tally to five and keeps Van Aert at three, and also means that Van Aert hasn’t won a title in five seasons.
    • Losing out yet again to Van der Poel is likely fairly devastating to Van Aert, especially considering just how dominant he looked just a few weeks ago, and also means that Van der Poel, at least on dirt, has to be considered the superior of the two life-long rivals (the two riders have combined for eight of the last ten World CX titles in the last ten season).
  • However, while the race settles, at least for now, the battle for off-road supremacy, it teases what is shaping up to be an incredible rivalry on the road between the two riders in 2023.
    • While Van der Poel has had more success in recent years off-the-road, his dirt focus has allowed Van Aert to rack up nine Tour de France stage wins to his one. Now that the Dutch superstar has done pretty much all he can do in CX, I expect his focus to shift to the road in the coming years as he attempts to catch up to his rival.

benidorm 23
Now to battle on the road

Volta Valenciana (Feb 1-5)

Stage 5
45.2km: After his Bora team lights things up with an extremely hard pace on the final climb of the final stage in an attempt to set up a race-winning attack for defending champion Aleksandr Vlasov. This move is successful in breaking up the peloton and teasing out an elite group at the front, but unfortunately for Vlasov, all the main GC contenders are present, including race-leader Giulio Ciccone and second-place overall Tao Geoghegan Hart.


31.9km: It went slightly unnoticed at the moment, but Rui Costa, who missed the move during the initial surge and is only 14 seconds down in the GC, bridges up to the lead group.


22.2km: Behind, Bahrain leads a furious chase in an attempt to set up Fred Wright for a stage win. Interestingly, they do this despite having Pello Bilbao, a threat to win the overall, in the front group, and with Mikel Landa in a chase group with Carlos Rodríguez (who refused to work with Landa likely due to having two teammates up the road).

9.3km: The lead group is holding off the hard-chasing peloton behind and still has 23 seconds in hand as they enter the final 10km. Bilbao wins an intermediate sprint, while Geoghegan Hart finishes second and Ciccone third, which means there are only three seconds separating the two riders in the GC.


2.2km-1.5km: Ineos’ Thymen Arensman launches a solo attack from the front group in an attempt to surge away for the stage win, but he inadvertently pulls Costa out of the group and creates a potentially overall-winning gap to the chase group (with 10 bonus seconds on the line for the win, Costa just needs a 4-seconds gap to Ciccone to win the overall).


Finish: Despite pulling for the final 1.5km, the former World Champion wins the sprint and creates enough of a gap to the chasers that he takes an extremely shocking win.


Stage Results
Rui Costa +0
2) Thymen Arensman +0
3) Samuele Battistella +7

Final GC
Rui Costa +0
2) Giulio Ciccone +16
3) Tao Geoghegan Hart +19

valencia23 st5
Rio Costa turning the clock back

Takeaways Cont.

3) Rui Costa was playing chess while everyone else was playing checkers

  • Costa, at 36, played his younger rivals against each other and let them pull him to the finish line, just to spring an attack and overtake them in the GC with hundreds of meters remaining.
    • Instead of attempting to open gaps on the uphill finishes, the Portuguese former World Champion simply marked his competition and waited until a flat finish, when he knew conflicting interests in the elite group behind would keep them from working together to close the gap.
    • His attack inside the final 2km was one of the only times he put his nose in the wind all week, but he certainly made it count.
  • This win is especially impressive considering that his Intermarche team did little all week while Ineos, Bora, UAE, and Bahrain were consistently parked on the front and doing significant amounts of work.

UAE, Ineos, Bora and Bahrain worked hard for little results

4) Ineos was the strongest team in the race, but tactics foiled them again

  • Ineos threw away a very good chance of winning this race despite having the strongest team by a very long way by once again failing to put everything behind a single leader (Tao Geoghegan Hart in this case).
  • Arensman’s attack, which was likely an attempt to ‘steal’ a stage win, only functioned to gift the overall lead to Costa. Simply sitting in and leading out Geoghegan Hart in the final sprint, which could have allowed him to win via time bonuses, would have been the far more productive decision.
  • Also when Carlos Rodriguez decided not to work in group 2, which included Landa, behind the lead group, it allowed the Bahrain-led third group to reel them in and take a few interesting strategic options off the table.
    • Had he worked and they made contact, it would have forced Ciccone to mark attacks from both Geoghegan Hart and Bilbao in the finale, which would have opened up lots of opportunities for the stage and overall wins for Ineos.
    • This also would have forced Bahrain to decide between letting Bilbao go in the front group or pulling behind for Fred Wright and increased the odds of the small lead group making it to the line and taking the essential time bonuses.

Was Costa just smarter?

5) There are now very tough grand tour GC leadership decisions to make

  • Ineos might have missed out on the overall win, but Thymen Arensman and Geoghegan Hart were absolutely flying on the climbs throughout the week.
    • While there has been much debate since the race regarding the validity of Ineos’ power meters and if they really were pushing 7w/kg for sustained periods, the fact is that Arensman, and Geoghegan Hart have all looked strong enough to be considered potential GC contenders in 2023.
  • And while Carlos Rodríguez hasn’t looked quite as sparkling as his teammates so far this season, he does appear to be building into form and should be expected to produce more strong GC results later in the year.
  • This is great news for the former superteam looking to get back into Tour de France contention, but it also means they will have a lot of difficult decisions to make regarding GC leadership later this season.
    • Additionally, as we witnessed in Valencia, having too many riders with similar fitness/skill riding for their own goals can keep Ineos from achieving its ultimate goal of actually winning the race.

besseges23 st4
Mattias Skjelmose won stage 4 ahead of Neilson Powless

Etoile de Bessèges (Feb 1-5)

Stage 4
200m-ish: After a fantastic final climb, Neilson Powless is powering on the front of the race in an effort to distance other the GC contenders left behind. However, this effort is setting up Trek’s Mattias Skjelmose, who is tied on time with him, for the stage win. When Skjelmose gets close enough to the line, he opens up his sprint and catches out Powless, whose hands aren’t yet in the drops.


100m: The critical beat Powless takes to respond gives Skjelmose an important gap into the final sharp right-hand turn to the finish line.


Finish: The combination of the tight final corner and strong tailwind means that by winning the race to the final corner, Skjelmose wins the race to the line. The four-second time bonus delta he gains by winning means he takes the overall lead by four seconds over Powless heading into the final day.


Results (w/time bonuses)
Mattias Skjelmose +0
2) Neilson Powless +4
3) Pierre Latour +19

Stage 5
Powless powers through the 10km long TT course five seconds faster than Skjelmose to win the overall by a single second. He is also able to hold off a flying Latour, who claws back seven seconds in the TT. His tactical gamble of pushing the pace with Skjelmose on his wheel on stage 4 in an effort to distance Latour from the day prior plays out perfectly.

besseges 23
TT stage win for Pedersen

Final GC
Neilson Powless +0
2) Mattias Skjelmose +1
3) Pierre Latour +12

We saw Powless had form when he won the Grand Prix Cycliste de Marseille La Marseillaise

Takeaways Cont.
Neilson Powless has entered 2023 at the highest level of his career

  • With this performance, Powless gets his first career GC win and racks up his second victory of the young season (the first was Marseillaise).
  • Due to his 2021 win at San Sebastian win, we already knew the 26-year-old American was a great rider, but he has clearly entered 2023 at the highest level of his career so far and has signaled he could be a rider to watch for stage and one-day wins at major races later in the year.
  • This win also caps off an impressive start to the season from the young American core (full post coming soon…).

besseges23 st2
New star for Trek-Segafredo – Mattias Skjelmose

7) Mattias Skjelmose shows Trek might have another slow-build star under contract

  • The 22-year-old Dane might have missed out on the overall win, but his impressive performance, which builds off a great 2022, shows Trek-Segafredo has seriously talented youngsters in their ranks who could potentially emerge as their next homegrown star.

besseges23 st2
De Lie – The next Belgian star

8) Arnaud De Lie continues to show his seemingly unlimited talent…and creates a potentially difficult decision for Lotto

  • Some might be tired of hearing it considering the 20-year-old Belgian has been featured for three consecutive posts, but his stage 3 win, where he unsuccessfully attacked an elite front group inside the final 5km before re-setting and winning the sprint just a few moments later continues to highlight both his extremely impressive range and world-class power.
  • If De Lie keeps this up, Lotto will have a difficult decision on their hands in terms of sprinter Tour de France selection and Caleb Ewan could find himself on the outside looking in.

besseges23 st1
There will be more from De Lie

# Spencer Martin is the author of the cycling-analysis newsletter Beyond the Peloton that breaks down the nuances of each race and answers big picture questions surrounding team and rider performance. Sign up now to get full access to all the available content and race breakdowns. #

Like PEZ? Why not subscribe to our weekly newsletter to receive updates and reminders on what's cool in road cycling?

Comments are closed.