Mathieu van der Poel dominated the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championship race in Bohemian town Tábor from start to finish to become the youngest elite 'cross World Champion in history, taking over that distinction from Erik De Vlaeminck, who was almost 21 when he won in 1966. Having only turned 20 just two weeks ago, the Dutchman was younger even than the men's U23 winner Michael Vanthourenhout, and together with Wout Van Aert, who turned 20 in September and Lars van der Haar, 23, represents the future of cyclo-cross.
Van der Poel held off a concerted chase from Belgians Kevin Pauwels and compatriot Van der Haar, with a furiously chasing Van Aert staging a comeback to overhaul them on the last lap. The rest of the field was never a factor in the nearly 70-minute long race.
Until last month Van der Poel still said he would be riding the World Championships race in the Under 23 category, just like his peer and arch rival Wout Van Aert. The duo had already clocked faster lap times than most riders in the Elite Men category for more than a year, and this season they also won World Cup rounds, Bpost Bank Trophy rounds and Superprestige rounds in the Elite Men category whenever they took decided to take part in them. In the end logistics and probably pressure from the team made them race in the Elite Men category. "It was the best choice of my life so far," Van der Poel said.
While Wout Van Aert struggled with mechanical issues after choosing to race on a new bike, Van der Poel showed little effects of the pressure, following up a dominating solo performance in the final World Cup round in Hoogerheide by stating he was the favourite for the world title and then making his statement true. "I proved in Hoogerheide last week that I was capable of doing a good job with the elite category," Van der Poel said.
"Today was an awesome day. The track was really technical and that's something I can do really well. Mentally, it was a very hard race. I didn't have a big gap at all. The gap was always 10 seconds. It was difficult, but I had a lot of confidence from last week. Whenever they came back I accelerated so they didn't get back on my wheel," Van der Poel said.
Van der Poel seems to have an edge on Van Aert when it comes down to deploying technical skills. The course in Tábor featured two barriers on an incline. On the first two laps Van der Poel tried to bunny-hop them without much success.
"In the warming up the barriers were very difficult. I knew that in the race it could make a difference. The first two laps didn't go well. During the warm-up it didn't go well and my confidence was gone. Then I found the ideal speed and cornering to take on the barriers. Then I had confidence. I took seconds there every lap."
"Mentally it was one of my best races. I kept going even though I thought probably five times that I would let them come back. I kept going. I didn't even look back, not even when I knew Van Aert was coming. I focus on avoiding mistakes myself. I started realizing I would win on the descent towards the finish. I kept saying: you're going to be world champion to myself and I couldn' t believe it," Van der Poel said.
Van der Poel started winning titles in 2011 in all sorts of categories and disciplines. On the road he was the 2013 World Champion in the Junior Men category. He already won the cyclo-cross World Championships in the Junior Men category in 2012 and 2013. Last year he was beaten by Van Aert in the Men Under 23 category. That's one small reason to ride one more time in that category, but one assumes that his win on Sunday makes up for that.
It's no surprise Mathieu van der Poel has turned out to be a great cyclist. His father Adrie van der Poel was a great rider himself, winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen in 1986, Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1988 and the Amstel Gold Race in 1990. He focused more on cyclo-cross in the later stages of his career, winning the 1996 cyclo-cross World Championships in Montreuil, France.
Mathieu's grandfather Raymond Poulidor made himself famous in cycling, too. The illustrious eternal second was always held back by cycling legends Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil. In the Tour de France, 'Poupou' claimed eight podium results in Paris but no overall victory or a day in the maillot jaune. He did win seven stages, however, and the Vuelta a España, Milan-San Remo, Flèche Wallonne and the GP des Nations. That's enough DNA to become the best. His older brother David is a teammate in the BKCP-Powerplus team, but has found less success. David Van der Poel finished 33rd in Tábor.
The Van der Poel family lives in Kapellen, Belgium, near the border with Netherlands. He rides a Colnago, the same brand that was always linked to cyclo-cross legend Sven Nys before the veteran recently converted to Trek. He likes to nickname himself as sniper, not often missing out on his targets. Sniper Mathieu intends to target more titles in the near future. With this first ‘cross world title he already came level with his father Adrie. "That's true. I want to win as many as possible. This one they can't take away from me anymore." He was well aware that riding in the rainbow jersey at the highest level would be a big thing. "It's a lot different. I don't think I have the confidence yet to know what it's going to mean for me in the next season."