Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
Each of them admits that they’ve been driven on by the other since they first clashed in their mid-teenage years
Sport likes nothing more than a spicy rivalry, that extra competitive edge that is evident when Barcelona play Real Madrid, the Red Sox take to the field against the Yankees, and Lewis Hamilton lines up on the start grid against Max Verstappen. Cycling has had its share too, including those between Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor, and Eddy Merckx and Rik Van Looy (initially) and Roger De Vlaeminck (later on). The latest one pits Mathieu van der Poel against Wout van Aert.
Their rivalry dates back to their mid-teenage years, to their beginnings in cyclo-cross. More than a decade later, it’s still evident, epitomised by their Saturday’s post-Sanremo image of the two of them crammed in next to each other and with Filippo Ganna for company on a two-person sofa, each determinedly avoiding the other’s eye.
This morning, I saw the TV footage of that awkward behind-the-podium seating arrangement. The trio are lost in their own thoughts to begin until van Aert, called to the stage as the third-placed finisher, springs up and out of shot. Immediately, van der Poel shifts into the place vacated by the Belgian and he and Ganna turn to each other and begin an animated and clearly friendly conversation. It’s a fascinating watch, one I looked at again and again. You can, of course, read what you want into these few seconds of footage. Conversation is hardly likely to flow when you’ve narrowly missed out on victory in a Monument.
The rivalry between the pair is compelling because they are so well matched and each of them admits that they feed off this relationship, using it as fuel for their motivational fire. Unlike the rivalry between Anquetil and Poulidor (van der Poel’s grandfather, don’t you know!), where the balance of success was almost always tipped in Maître Jacques’ direction and the pair were actually good friends off the road, the long-standing WVA-MVDP face-off is fiercely competitive and all the more enthralling because of that. Over recent seasons, it’s been amplified by the many feats both have achieved on the road.
Back in 2021, L’Équipe picked over their rivalry, the story beginning with a look back to a Superprestige cycloc-cross event, following which the two riders were sat together in a cabin in front of Sporza’s TV cameras, but without a journalist as compere, the idea being that the pair would chat together for an hour about whatever took their fancy. “I don’t know why I agreed to do that. I had nothing to say to Mathieu. We were already rivals and today it would be impossible to bring us together like that,” said van Aert, his words backed up by their impromptu meeting on that under-sized settee in Sanremo.
Van der Poel was of exactly the same mind about the meeting between the then 17-year-olds. “It was ridiculous to bring us together and put us face to face like that that. It was pointless, we had nothing to say to each other,” he affirmed.
By the time of that awkward 2011 rendezvous van der Poel and van Aert had been duelling with each other for two years, the Dutchman usually the victor having developed physically much quicker than his rival. When van Aert shot up as he went into his late teenage years and the balance became more even, van der Poel struggled to come to terms with the Belgian’s ability. He would rage and cry when he was beaten. “It was a big issue for Mathieu,” his father Adrie told L’Équipe, “he had to learn to lose.” According to van der Poel senior, the pair never joked or got on with each other like other kids of their age did.
Since then, they’ve both stacked up the wins, matching each other almost strike for strike. Van der Poel’s major successes include five world cyclo-cross titles, two editions of the Tour of Flanders, Milan-Sanremo and a Tour de France stage victory that put him in the yellow jersey, while van Aert has collected three world CX titles, Milan-Sanremo, nine Tour stages, a spell in the yellow jersey and a green jersey win.
These and other results have led to plenty of uncomfortable moments on race podiums, one of them looking smug, the other as if they would like to be anywhere else but there. “It’s impossible for us to be friends,” van Aert explained to L’Équipe. “How can we have good feelings for each other and then go out and fight each other in a race? What really motivates us is the fact that we don’t like each other.”
There have been plenty of moments that have backed this up, among them the finale of the 2020 Tour of Flanders when the pair came to the finish line together after fellow escapee Julian Alaphilippe had been knocked to the ground by a motorbike marshal. Their record in road sprints to that point suggested that van Aert was the favourite, but van der Poel after cannily dropping their speed to almost walking pace before delivering the power punch that tends to give him the edge in their duels.
“I would have preferred to have been beaten by Alaphilippe,” van Wout confessed. “I would have slept more easily that night. I keep turning that over for three nights, certainly because it was Mathieu who had won. We’ll never change. This rivalry has made us who we are and it’s not finished.”
As rivals tend to, the pair clearly have huge respect for each other. This isn’t a blood feud. Older and more sure of themselves now than they were in those teenage years when Adrie van der Poel says their mutual aversion stood out, they’re often seen chatting with each other in the bunch, and there’s always a handshake, a pat on the back and a word of congratulation when one or the other has added another success to their palmarès. They’re mellowing, and you can’t help but wonder where that might lead when in their post-racing days. Might they become card-playing buddies like Anquetil and Poulidor, their rivalry cementing a bond when there’s nothing on the line? I suspect not, but it’s a lovely image.
For now, though, that prospect is a long time in the future, and we can all relish the next instalments in the van der Poel-van Aert sage, which will continue at the GP E3 Harelbeke, Flanders, Roubaix, the Tour of Switzerland and the Tour de France.
This article has been edited since it first appeared on 22 March 2023