Tom Pidcock endured a disappointing afternoon in his cyclo-cross season debut on Saturday, finishing seventh in the Superprestige series race in Merksplas.
Pidcock had to change bikes as the race entered its third lap and admitted that the course was not ideal for his return, as the Brit failed to make a challenge for the podium.
“My level was OK, but I was losing time in a lot of places. Then I crashed, and then made a few too many mistakes. But I’m happy. It was not bad.”
It was the 23-year-old’s first appearance since becoming world champion in January, and appeared right to ease expectations surrounding his return on a frustrating day in Belgium.
The trouble began for Pidcock when reigning European champion Michael Vanthourenhout fell onto his wheel in what was a particularly awkward, windy ditch section, but the Ineos Grenadiers rider was able to maintain his balance.
However, the day belonged to Laurens Sweeck, who performed superbly and led throughout all of the eight laps, as the Crelan-Fristads rider finished five seconds ahead of Lars van der Haar of Baloise Trek Lions.
“I was able to make a difference right from the start without really having to push,” Sweeck told Wielerflits. “That worked in my favour the whole game. There were small mistakes, not big ones.”
Vanthourenhout (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) took the final place on the podium, while Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) came fourth ahead of team-mate Ryan Kamp in fifth.
Then came Niels Vandeputte (Alpecin-Deceuninck) in sixth, who was placed one spot ahead of world champion Pidcock in seventh.
It was third time lucky for Sweeck at this course, as he had finished third in each of the last two years at Merksplas.
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This was a performance of maturity from the Belgian, who shrugged off the challenges from Van der Haar and Iserbyt, who both tried and failed to close what had become a 17-second gap away from the leader.
Van der Haar was able to take advantage of setbacks from Iserbyt to cement second spot, as Sweeck made light work of a challenging course to cruise past the finish line and secure a second consecutive Superprestige win.