The best of rivals

by Peter Cossins

Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by CorVos/SWpix.com


Just three weeks. That’s all that remain until the World Cyclo-Cross Championships in Ostend, Belgium, setting for what looks certain to be the next big showdown between Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert.

There are few things as intoxicating and attention-grabbing in any sport as a great rivalry, and the MVDP-WVA contest is proving to be one of the best that cycle sport has ever seen. In time, it might even prove to be the very best, so let’s lap it up, revelling in every cyclo-cross, Classic and, from this year it seems, Grand Tour stage where the pair are pitted against each other.

The history of their rivalry has been well told. Born just three months apart – van Aert is the elder – the pair have been slugging it out for a decade, one or the other winning the world cross title at either junior, under-23 or elite level every year since 2012, when Dutchman van der Poel edged out van Aert by eight seconds on the Belgian’s home terrain at Koksijde when they were both 17.

What makes their rivalry absolutely compelling is that they are so well matched. They’re almost the same height, weight, have the same strengths and skillset, and, for the most part, the same objectives.

What makes their rivalry absolutely compelling is that they are so well matched. They’re almost the same height, weight, have the same strengths and skillset, and, for the most part, the same objectives.

On the road, there’s been little between them. They’ve both won a Monument (Milan-Sanremo in van Aert’s case, the Tour of Flanders in van der Poel’s) and another major Classic (Strade Bianche and Amstel Gold, respectively). van Aert has established a slight edge thanks to his two stage wins at the 2020 Tour de France.

In cyclo-cross, meanwhile, the Dutchman has a considerable advantage over the course of their 164 meetings, finishing ahead of the Belgian on 115 occasions – staggeringly, between them they won all but 17 of those races. In terms of elite world titles, though, they are currently level with three each, van der Poel claiming the crown in 2015, van Aert winning the next three, and van der Poel the champion in the last two years. Ostend, then, offers one of the pair the chance to edge ahead, assuming that young Brit Tom Pidcock doesn’t upstage them.

It’s interesting to draw a comparison between the WVA-MVDP rivalry and others in the past. The last significant one was perhaps the match-up between Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, but the duel between the Belgian, a sprinter, and the Swiss, a time trial specialist, had a much narrower focus, essentially boiling down to the northern Classics and particularly the week starting with Flanders and ending with Paris-Roubaix. What’s more, injuries on both sides meant that there were only a handful of head-to-head contests in those races when they were both at their peak.

Going further back still, the Beppe Saronni-Francesco Moser rivalry was long-running and intense, but largely confined to Italian races. In the 1960s, the match-up between Jacques Anquetil and van der Poel’s grandfather Raymond Poulidor was played out on the sport’s biggest stages, but was very one-sided.

A better comparison can be made with the rivalries between Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali before and after the Second World War, and between Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck in the Classics during the 1970s. I hasten to add that I’m not saying that van der Poel and van Aert are in the same class as any of that illustrious quartet (or at least not yet), but that these two rivalries were similar because they pitted riders who were physically and competitively very well matched, and were so over several seasons.

The comparison is, I think, supported by the fact that in all three cases there were/are some other great riders in the mix. Coppi and Bartali had to contend with the likes of Fiorenzo Magni, Ferdi Kübler and Hugo Koblet, Merckx and De Vlaeminck with Felice Gimondi, Walter Godefroot, Freddy Maertens to name but three, while van Aert and van der Poel have to watch for world champions Julian Alaphilippe, Peter Sagan and Mads Pedersen amongst others.

In common with all the best rivalries, as well as having mutual respect for each other, there is also a sense of needle between van Aert and van der Poel

In common with all the best rivalries, as well as having mutual respect for each other, there is also a sense of needle between van Aert and van der Poel. It’s not reached the ‘anyone-but-him’ level of antipathy that sometimes characterised duels between Coppi and Bartali, but it has shown through, most notably in the wake of Gent-Wevelgem last October, when van Aert accused his long-running opponent of preferring “to see me lose rather than making a chance to win the race himself”. The media, of course, were quick to relay the line to the Dutchman, who retorted: “It’s a bit shallow to say I raced to make him lose because I always ride to win the race.”

That added considerable spice to the Tour of Flanders a week later, and neither rider disappointed, the pair ending up disputing victory after fellow breakaway Alaphilippe had crashed out when clipped by race motorbike. Coming into the finish, most had van Aert tagged as the favourite thanks to his two Tour bunch sprint wins, but it was van der Poel who nicked it.

We’ve seen van Aert do the same, retaining his world cyclo-cross crown in 2018 after van der Poel had dominated the off-road season up to that point. As in all great competitive rivalries, there is no way to predict which way the result is going to go. All you can do is relish the ride and then mark off the days until the next encounter, revelling all the time in something rare and quite extraordinary.

If you’ve enjoyed this, why not try La Course en Tête’s review of the 2020 season,
Racing in the Time of Covid, which is on sale here.

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