The most hotly-anticipated cyclocross world championships race in years certainly lived up to its billing this afternoon, as Mathieu van der Poel outsprinted Wout van Aert to win his fifth world title after a thrilling, tactical duel in Hoogerheide.
In an hour-long, ten-lap microcosm of their entire pro careers, Van Aert and Van der Poel – the defining cyclocross stars of the past decade who have, in recent years, migrated their rivalry to the road – appeared inseparable throughout today’s elite men’s race, before the Dutch superstar accelerated hard on the final straight to send the home crowd into raptures.
In a harbinger of what was to come for the majority of the following ten laps, and roared on by the packed, boisterous home crowd, Van der Poel didn’t waste any time to stamp his authority on the race, with a series of explosive bursts, closely followed by the steadier, seemingly unbreakable Van Aert.
Aided by a strong start by Dutch teammate Lars van der Haar, which strung out the group on the dry, fast course (a much more straightforward affair than the slippery elite women’s race yesterday), the 28-year-old accelerated hard on the flyover during the first lap, forcing Van Aert into a brief flurry to close the gap.
Van der Poel continued to press ahead, Van Aert acting as his pale blue shadow, as cyclocross’ Big Two underlined – not they needed to – their supremacy over the sport. Meanwhile, as the leading duo stretched their advantage over the chasing pack metre by metre in the opening laps, a blanket could be thrown over the twenty-rider strong race for third place.
Despite forcing Van Aert to the front for half a lap – as the Belgian pair Michael Vanthourenhout and Gerben Kuypers pressed on behind – Van der Poel continued to use the Hoogerheide course’s defining features, including the much-discussed planks, to pile the pressure on his career-long rival.
Van Aert, however, proved why he’s been the dominant figure of this most thrilling and gripping of cyclocross seasons, answering every one of Van der Poel’s attacks while occasionally emerging from the Dutch rider’s back wheel to provide a few probing digs of his own.
By the race’s halfway mark, the duel between the pair had settled into a familiar pattern, characterised by brief surges followed by increasingly longer periods of tempo riding (punctuated by Van der Poel’s seemingly futile attempts to converse with his pit crew), as both riders appeared content to bide their time ahead of the pivotal final few laps.
Then, with just over three laps remaining, the race ignited once again, Van der Poel launching a prolonged attack on the course’s main hill and over the planks. But still, the calm, collected Van Aert could not be dislodged, ushering in another spell of relative ‘respite’ and tactical intrigue.
The late-race détente between the Big Two almost opened the door for the consistent Van der Haar and Eli Iserbyt, who closed within 15 seconds of the Belgian and Dutch tandem up front.
However, it was always going to come down to a shootout between the sport’s two defining names, and – after a tense, nail-biting final lap – Van der Poel launched his sprint early on the road. Van Aert, perhaps rueing giving his rival the opportunity to surge first, couldn’t close the gap and Van der Poel promptly sent the Dutch crowd into raptures, as he secured the fifth cyclocross rainbow jersey of his illustrious career.
“I think everybody was saying this is how the race should end; in a sprint between me and Wout,” a delighted Van der Poel said at the finish.
“It’s incredible. This is for sure in my top three of the nicest victories of all time. I’m going to remember this for a long time.
“[In the final lap] I felt super relaxed, which I think was maybe the key to winning today. I could stay really calm. Everyone expected me to make a move at the barriers, but I already knew I just wanted to go to the sprint.
“It’s super strange. I worked super hard for this one, I had a few preparations with my back again, and I set with my team on the training camp this goal, which I marked at the beginning of the season.”
Just behind the era-defining duo, Iserbyt provided the Belgian team with some sort of consolation by besting Van der Haar for the bronze medal.
With 2022 world champion Tom Pidcock missing, as he prepares for the upcoming classics season on the road, Great Britain’s Cameron Mason capped off a breakthrough season at the elite level by finishing an impressive ninth.
Earlier today, Team GB secured its second medal of the championships – after Friday’s mixed relay event – as Zoe Bäckstedt, last year’s junior world champion, claimed silver in her first attempt in the U23 ranks, as one of the leading elite riders of the winter, Shirin van Anrooij (Netherlands) soloed to an expected world title on her 21st birthday.
But the story of the day was always destined to be the battle between Van Aert and Van der Poel, who once again etched another chapter in what may well prove one of cycling’s greatest – and most exciting – ever rivalries.
“I think everybody knows the story; we pushed each other already for ten years already,” Van der Poel – the victor on this occasion – told reporters at the finish.
“Also, the crowds – if it was just me and him it would’ve been different. We pushed each other to a higher level but also the sport. I’ve never seen anything like this in cyclocross.
“It’s a super cool story we are writing. But it’s not the end – we still have the road season and for sure I’ll see him again.”
And for that, the cycling world is extremely grateful.
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