Words by William Fotheringham | Photo by SWpix.com
At the end of what was possibly the great cyclo-cross season in memory, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert served up the most fitting of duels
I can’t recall any winters when the end of the cyclo-cross season has cast a shadow over the start of the road racing season, but this was the one, and it was quite the shadow. Rui Costa, Neilson Powless and Floortje Mackaj, winners at Bessèges and Valencia, might take issue with this, but on Sunday, there was only one game in town: the battle of the Vans, the climax of possibly the greatest cyclo-cross season in living memory.
There is much to love about cross (my personal favourite is the location of the beer tent) but you can’t argue with a head to head between Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel in front of a baying horde of Belgian and Dutch fans. You could argue that a three-way fight with Tom Pidcock would have bene even better, but this winter the big two have looked in a class of their own.
It’s not often in sport that a climactic showdown actually lives up to its billing, but this one did. The destiny of the world title was always likely to be decided by a single tiny error, and van Aert made his mistake in the finish straight, losing concentration for just long enough to let van der Poel get the jump on him. And once the jump had been got, the rest was history. VDP’s explosive power saw to that. But in truth, if VDP had the mental edge by a whisker at that key stage, it probably reflected the fact that he’d just about had the physical edge too, as van Aert reflected afterwards.
To avoid anti-climax, it mattered that nothing random got in the way, that there was no repetition of the puncture that did for van Aert at Herentals, or the misfiring gear that ended van der Poel’s chances at Zolder. And it mattered that whoever won could say they had overcome the very best that the other had to offer. Until van Aert’s momentary lapse of concentration, neither rider had made the most minimal error. There wasn’t quite the last-lap intensity of Benidorm, none of the jousting for position that caught the eye there, given that there was a decent length finish straight, and both men could fancy their chances in a sprint.
And so, for van der Poel, the great comeback after the disaster of last year’s world road championship, and the fretful return to cross over the winter – remember how out of sorts he looked in the snow of Val di Sole – for a title that takes him to within two of the legendary Eric De Vlaeminck. For van Aert, a ninth runner’s-up spot in the Belgian jersey, after it had all looked to be going so well when he dominated on the muddier courses over the Christmas holiday.
There are so many reasons why this is one of the greatest cycling rivalries ever. Its duration for starters. A rapid internet search comes up with slightly more youthful-faced versions of the dynamic duo doing their thing from way back when, in exactly the same way, pushing their tyres’ adhesion to the limit, asking questions on every corner. The sheer virtuosity of what they both do speaks for itself. The fact that so much cross is now on live television thanks to GCN and Eurosport helps too.
Most of all though, it’s the fact that this rivalry translates from the mud and gloop of winter, from those crazily intense sprints out of the start, into the relative marathons on the road in spring and summer. When the two powerhouses race on the road, it’s rarely at the same level of intensity or technical virtuosity, and there are usually other riders around them to add an extra dimension, so there isn’t usually the sheer gladiatorial spectacle that we’ve enjoyed all winter. But we will watch them in the Classics and the Tour accompanied by those winter memories of how when put face to face, each can push the other to his limit.
If cycling as a sport has a weakness, it is its lack of coherent, quickly legible narratives. Van Aert versus van der Poel is probably the best narrative in the sport right now: it doesn’t need much explanation. And it will run and run. It’s less than four weeks to Strade Bianche, less than six to Milan-Sanremo. Time for some new chapters in the great soap opera. Long may it continue.