Van Aert ahead of Van der Poel in a race in Belgium last December. Luc Claessen (Getty Images)
Three weeks ago, Mathieu van der Poel (Kapellen, Belgium, although a Dutch citizen; 28 years old) crossed the finish line first, but without smiling or raising his arms. He chose sobriety and politeness not to celebrate the victory after the X2O cyclocross race – the third division of the discipline – in Herentals, at the home of his arch-rival Wout van Aert (Belgian, 28 years old) who, on the last lap He denied his misfortune when he suffered a puncture. “I would have preferred to have won without any intermittent setbacks,” decided Van der Poel. A declaration of respect, not friendship, between two runners who forged their rivalry in the mud and revolutionized cycling, who have been competing since their cadet days – there have reportedly been more than 250 races already – and who feed each other ribbons to hoist, magnets for fans and sponsors, geniuses with production engines who will compete in a stage of the World Championships in Benidorm this Sunday (10.15, Eurosport and Teledeporte), clear favorite with the permission of Briton Tom Pidcock (Ineos ) .
Instant customization. The UCI team managers understand that cyclocross is an adjunct to the quest for a better version of the cyclist, as it teaches you skill and dexterity, handles the bike in big packs, and provides technical solutions to compromising situations in the race like a fiendish corner or a bad roundabout . None like Van der Poel (Alpecin and four cyclocross world championships under his belt) or Van Aert (Jumbo and three others), already settled on the road in 2019, can’t shut down the engine – because there’s no rest on his calendar as with the other riders – with laurels in the classics, massive sprints and stages in the grand tours.
“Those are two talents. They let them pedal anywhere, even on a spin bike, and they blow it up. They were born to kick,” says Juanma Gárate (Education First). “We are talking about two wonders of nature. They would be good at any aerobic sport. They not only win in all disciplines, but in every respect,” adds Jorge Azanza (Euskaltel). “They were born to be artists and phenomena of this sport, no matter the bike. They’re profiles that take a little bit of the demanding exertion that is cyclocross and that makes them super aggressive guys, plus that great motor they have. Also, they’re not afraid to fail at the almost crazy things we think they do,” emphasizes Eusebio Unzue (Movistar). “It is that they are good for everything and do not give up anything. They are a show with a winning mentality,” adds Joxean Matxín (UAE). “They have an hour effort, which requires strength… But the cause isn’t cyclocross. It’s the talent, the mentality and that they’ve improved a lot in the competition,” says Juanjo Oroz (Kern Pharma).
flag rivalry. “This year is the first time I’ve spoken to Mathieu for more than five minutes,” revealed Van Aert in 2020. Van der Poel took over the baton: “Our rivalry goes beyond sport and that’s great. We empower each other and make sure we push each other’s boundaries. It’s a great story. I think there should be a healthy hatred between us.” It’s another chapter of geniuses confronting each other on bikes, as exemplified in their day by the elegant Coppi and the self-sacrificing Bartali; the stylist Anquetil and the second Poulidor – he is Van der Poel’s grandfather -; the cannibal Merckx and the unfortunate Ocaña; and the overwhelming (and cheater) Armstrong and the intimidated (also cheater) Ullrich.
“From Van der Poel I prefer his spontaneity. Often he does things knowing he’s going to blow himself up are kamikaze leaks. He’s not scared and that puts directors and competitors out of their comfort zone. And I want to highlight Van Aert’s ability to adapt to the mountains. In the bunch sprints he’s very close to the best, he wins classics and on the tour he was able to take Vingegaard with him to free Pogacar,” says Gárate. “When Van der Poel is having a good day, he does everything… Buah! He’s fast and very difficult to beat. And Van Aert does everything, he’s a global runner,” says Oroz. “Everyone likes to see her run. They’re so complete…Van Aert proved tremendous last year in the high mountains, the time trial, the bunch sprint…He’s the closest thing to what Jalabert was and surpasses him. And that Van der Poel seemed like another point in recent years, but now it’s the other way around. The need to be bigger than the others makes them strong,” agrees Matxín. “Yeah, it goes by seasons, stripes. Before Van der Poel won and now Van Aert… They feed each other because they don’t know anything else to play but to win,” adds Azanza. “Perhaps Van der Poel has another defining point when it comes to definition, and Van Aert is more consistent year-round and on certain mountain stages,” summarizes Unzue.
The best claim. “The fact that these animals are coming is not a relief or an award, but a blessing,” concluded Spanish trainer Pascual Momparler and organizer of the event in Benidorm. That’s why the posters of the event were with their faces and that on practice day, the fans’ flashes went off every time they rolled in front of them. “It’s a spectacle to see them because they’re doing things that haven’t been seen before; they start from scratch, they climb very well, they are always at the top… They shape this era and change cycling,” Oroz praises her. “They’re moving cyclocross to the street because they’re attacking with an hour’s lead. These attacks attract the public, brands, and people,” notes Matxín. “There is no doubt that they are hooked. Having these talents is very good for cycling. The audience declares that it helps us get through these golden years of cycling,” emphasizes Gárate. “His arrival has brought spectacularity to this sport and we have him to thank for that,” confirms Unzue. “These two along with three others from the peloton are the ones who get the fan out of the chair and that gets them hooked on a sport. The kids look at her,” concludes Azanza. And this Sunday Benidorm will do it and by the way the whole world.
Van Aert: “Van der Poel always pushes me to the limit”
Van Aert, who looked like he had just woken up from a nap, had a meeting with the Spanish press at the hotel where his team Jumbo-Visma were staying in Mutxamel (Alicante), just a day before his debut in a competition in Spain . “I trained a lot this Christmas at the races in Belgium and focused on short efforts. When the Tour arrives we will change the way we train,” concluded the cyclist, who added: “This year I want chances to win classics, specifically Paris Roubaix, the World Championship and a stage at the Tour. I have big goals. I like to play offensively and I don’t mind the pressure.”
In any case, he knows that he will compete against Van der Poel in cyclocross and on the road. “It’s always hard to beat him because he always pushes me to the limit. But winning is rewarding whether he’s in the race or not. I like it when I get it in the last meters, it’s a great feeling. And with him it sometimes happens because, like Pidcock, he has great skills.
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