Cycling has been blessed with great rivalries over the years and in Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) versus Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) the current generation has one to measure up to Coppi and Bartali, Boonen and Cancellara, and the rest.
They've been going at it for the best part of a decade already and you sense that, on the road at least, they've barely got going.
The pair were born just four months apart, Van Aert in September 1994 and Van der Poel in January 1995, with one from Belgium and one from Holland but both from the cycling heartland of northern Flanders. Two riders, different characters but with the ability to do just about anything on the bike. They have already faced each other almost 200 times, and climbed podiums together nearly as often.
In cyclo-cross, they have been locking horns for the best part of a decade and have come to utterly dominate the discipline. In the past couple of years they have taken their battle out onto the open road as well, with one Monument apiece ahead of the Tour of Flanders.
It was last year's Flanders that talk of their rivalry reached fever pitch. The pair had marked each other out of Gent-Wevelgem, and Van Aert publicly hit out at Van der Poel's tactics. The frenzied talk of bad blood between the two was arguably overblown, perhaps more in hope than anything else, and the pair settled things in a sprint at Flanders with Van Aert sportingly congratulating Van der Poel beyond the line.
As it is, things have turned ugly on a few occasions, but the general picture is a relationship built on mutual respect, albeit quite a cold form of mutual respect.
"They have never been close," Niels Albert, Van Aert's former coach, tells Cyclingnews. "They would never really talk to each other at races, and especially not away from races. But there is not a bad feeling. I don't think Wout ever finished a race and starting shouting 'Mathieu this, Mathieu that'. There is a level of respect for what the other one does."
That's pretty much how both have framed it themselves, insisting the other's presence is actually beneficial to them and that the rivalry is beneficial to the sport as a whole.
Ahead of Sunday's Tour of Flanders, we've delved back to understand the history of the rivalry and their respective career trajectories, showcasing the wins, losses, tensions, controversies, and handshakes.
2012: First Worlds meeting
Although the pair have come across each other before, the first major chapter in this rivalry is written in 2012, at the Cyclo-cross World Championships in Koksijde. Both are first-year juniors and it's Van der Poel who claims the first of what will be a big shared collection of world titles, holding off Van Aert and soloing across the line eight seconds in front.
Interestingly, Van Aert celebrates as he crosses the line, raising both arms and punching the sky. He knows he hasn’t won but is simply delighted to have secured a medal. At this early stage, Van der Poel is the dominant force. He has won both the World Cup and Superprestige series, as well as the European title, on an almost unbroken run of success.
Van Aert has managed to interrupt that once, at Superprestige Ruddervoorde, but at this point he’s still very much the underdog.
2013: Rivalry on pause
The rivalry is put on pause for the season finishing in 2013. Van Aert, despite being considered small for his age, graduates to the U23 ranks while Van der Poel stays in the juniors for the 2012-13 cyclocross season. Van der Poel’s dominance reaches the point where he doesn't lose once, picking up the World Cup, Superprestige, and Dutch and European titles. He caps it by becoming the first rider to win back-to-back junior world titles in the Kentucky snow, leading from the gun and finishing more than a minute clear of anyone else.
Van Aert, meanwhile, is winning less, but his performances as an 18-year-old in the U23 ranks are arguably just as impressive. He wins three rounds of the Superprestige to claim the series title and finishes third in the World Cup. More impressively, he wins bronze at the World Championships, again celebrating as he crosses the line.
2014: Van Aert comes of age as rivalry takes off
The rivalry resumes and truly takes off. Van der Poel joins Van Aert in the U23s for the 2013-14 cyclocross season and the pair dominate. In the Superprestige, with the overall title goes to Van der Poel with four wins to three.
In the more prestigious World Cup, they both make the first podium behind Michael Vanthourenhout but then share the rest of the races between them. Van der Poel wins in Tabor, Koksijde, Zolder, and Rome, with Van Aert winning in Namur and the last round in Nommay, where Van der Poel seals the overall.
At the World Championships, however, Van Aert exacts revenge. It’s Van der Poel who is more known from attacking early and racing from the front, but Van Aert beats him at his own game, getting away on the opening lap and riding much of the race alone. This time, there are even bigger celebrations on the line, with Van der Poel only managing bronze more than a minute down.
“It’s unbelievable and I’m so, so happy. He [van der Poel] was the big favourite and I beat him and that makes it even more beautiful," Van Aert says. "I finally proved I can do it at a big championship."
2015: Tensions emerge
The 2014-2015 cyclo-cross season sees the pair straddle the divide between the U23 ranks and the elites. Van der Poel makes an instant impact in the elite Superprestige, winning the opening round in Gieten. He goes on to win two more rounds to become the youngest winner of the elite series. Van Aert, meanwhile, races most of the series as an U23.
Tensions start to emerge between the pair over their choice of races. Van der Poel misses the U23 European Championship to focus on the elite Superprestige, which attracts widespread criticism. Van Aert, who claims the title, responds to the Dutchman’s absence with reference to a proverb: "The absent are always in the wrong".
After each wins a round of the elite World Cup, they enter the World Championships as elites, despite being just 20 years old. Van der Poel hits out early and rides a flawless race to claim a stunning first elite world title. Meanwhile, Van Aert, on a new bike with a 1x drivetrain, is beset by mechanicals and crashes. He sprints to the silver medal, but there’s no celebration this time.
“I don't think I won silver. I lost gold. I think I can say that I was the best man in the race but that doesn't buy me anything," he says, although he does temper that with some graciousness towards Van der Poel. “He's a nice world champion. He'll show the jersey all year long.”
2016: 'That' tangle
After establishing themselves as the top two in the world at the first time of asking, Van der Poel and Van Aert go on to dominate the sport in their first full season as elites.
While Van der Poel previously had the edge, the balance shifts and Van Aert becomes the more prolific of the two. He wins the World Cup, Superprestige, and Bpost Bank Trophy series, and then gets revenge with his first elite World Championship crown.
Van der Poel is set back by a knee injury he suffered on the road at the Tour de l’Avenir. Still, he wins the final four rounds of the World Cup. It's not enough to put him in contention for the overall, but it nevertheless raises the stakes ahead of Worlds in Belgium.
That is the scene for an iconic moment in the rivalry, as Van der Poel hops off and steps into the wheel of Van Aert. When they finally untangle themselves, they go in opposite directions – a fired up Van Aert blasting to the front of the race to win the rainbow jersey, and Van der Poel sitting up while in contention for bronze to eventually finish fifth.
Van Aert is sharp-tongued in his post-race press conference.
“I have to thank him. Because I got stuck in his wheel I finally got into my rhythm. Merci Mathieu,” he says. As for the way Van der Poel wilted: “It’s in my character never to give up. I don’t race to sit up after five laps.“
2017: Relations turn ugly
The friction between the pair reaches an all-time high and their relationship an all-time low.
By this point, the first two spots in any major cyclo-cross race are virtually a foregone conclusion. Van Aert starts the stronger as Van der Poel recovers from another knee operation, but the Dutchman soon moves through the gears. It’s not enough to win the World Cup – which Van Aert beats him 4-3 in terms of rounds – but puts his rival into second place in seven of the eight Superprestige races.
The build-up to World Championships is mired in controversy.
First of all, Van Aert’s team manager Niels Albert, publicly questions the role of Van der Poel’s father – Adri – in designing the course in Bieles. Van der Poel himself hits back on Twitter, writing: “When Wout became world champion in Hoogerheide on the course that my father had set, I didn't hear anyone! Always complaining.”
Things then turn ugly when Van der Poel follows Kevin Pauwels in publishing his anti-doping control forms, creating a cloud of suspicion over Van Aert. “It was not meant to provoke him,” Van der Poel insists, but many now suspect Van Aert of using cortisone to treat a recent knee injury. Van Aert denies this, responding to Van Aert’s calls for transparency by saying: “I feel no need to share data with the world.”
When the pair finally line up for the Worlds, it’s Van Aert who claims back-to-back titles after a tumultuous race in Bieles. Van der Poel makes the early running but suffers no fewer than four punctures, while Van Aert suffers just one – right before the pits.
A tearful Van der Poel has to join his rival on the podium. “It’s the biggest disappointment of my career," he says.
Onto the road
2017 is also the year in which the pair start to take their rivalry out onto the open road. Van der Poel has the greater background, regularly racing at junior level and indeed winning the world road race title in 2013. In the summer, the pair lock horns at a string of minor Belgian one-day races.
Van Aert wins the Ronde van Limburg, where Van der Poel is 77th, before beating the Dutchman in a sprint from a small group at Ride Bruges. Van der Poel gets his own back at Dwars door Het Hageland, where Van Aert is third.
2018: Van der Poel dominates, but Van Aert wins Worlds
The Cyclo-cross World Championships are once again the scene of some ugly comments, the climax of a season of even more rivalry.
Once again, the pair have spent the 2017-2018 season on the podiums, but this time Van der Poel is the overwhelmingly dominant force. He wins seven of the nine rounds of the World Cup to claim his first overall title, six of the eight rounds to win his third Superprestige, and seven of the eight rounds to win the DVV series for the first time. He adds the Dutch and European titles, winning 32 of the 39 races he enters and only finishing off the podium once.
Van Aert, on the other hand, is some way short of his best, sparking an inquest in Belgium over the cause of his problems. “I seem to be fighting against myself,” he says.
Everything points to a Van der Poel victory at the Worlds in Valkenburg, but Van Aert stuns the world to complete a historic treble. He powers through the mud to win by more than two minutes, while Van der Poel has to settle for bronze.
"I didn't make many mistakes. Wout was far above the others today,” Van der Poel says. However, Adri is not so gracious in defeat.
“If the difference is two minutes, that is not normal. He rides around, but he does not breathe," he says, his insinuations causing a huge stir. He presses on: "With all due respect, Wout does not even stand in the shadow of Mathieu in terms of victories this season.”
On the road
Onto the road, and Van Aert gets a head start as his team operates at Professional Continental level with Vérandas Willems, allowing him his first taste of the Spring Classics.
He makes an immediate impact, with an incredible podium at Strade Bianche that sees him famously fall off his bike in fatigue on the final climb to Siena. Top 10s at Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders – plus 13th at Paris-Roubaix – confirm him as a future Classics star.
In the summer, Van der Poel wins the Ronde van Limburg and Van Aert wins the Tour of Denmark before the pair clash at the European Championships.
Matteo Trentin gets the better of them both in the small group sprint but their medals – silver for Dutchman and bronze for the Belgian – are another reminder of their potential in major road races.
2019: Van der Poel turns Worlds tables, pair hit the Classics
Despite Van Aert racing in the rainbow jersey, Van der Poel continues his general dominance of cyclo-cross. "The jersey I have is not one that should always be chasing," says Van Aert as he has to settle for second place until the end of December.
Van Aert goes through a period of upheaval as he terminates his contract with the Verandas-Crelan team in feud with team manager Nick Nuyens and races as an independent before joining Jumbo-Visma.
The second places continue in the new year as Van der Poel wins six World Cups, seven DVV Trophies and all eight Superprestige races, plus the Dutch and European titles again.
This time, there’s no turning of the tables at Worlds, and Van der Poel finally ends Van Aert’s run. Van Aert prevents the usual lead-from-the front exhibition, but Van der Poel gets away half-way through in Denmark, with Van Aert settling for silver at 16 seconds.
"There was a lot of weight coming off my shoulders when crossing that finish line," Van der Poel says. "Finally it comes together again.”
On the road
The rivalry is taken up another notch as the pair hit the spring Classics – Van der Poel for the first time as his Corendon-Circus team step up to ProConti level.
Van Aert seems to capitalise on his previous season’s progress with another podium at Strade Bianche, sixthh at Milan-San Remo, and second at E3. However, it’s Van der Poel who claims the pair’s first Flemish Classics with an all-action display and resounding sprint finish at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
After the pair finish in the main selection behind Alberto Bettiol at the Tour of Flanders, Van der Poel produces one of the defining moments of his career with a mind-bending victory at Amstel Gold Race, chasing down the late attack over the top of the Cauberg and then winning the sprint.
In the summer, the pair part ways, with Van Aert pushing back in front on the road and taking a major step forward with two wins apiece at the Dauphiné and Tour de France, spanning sprints and time trials. However he crashes out of the Pau time trial with a huge gash in his thigh, putting his career in doubt.
Van der Poel, meanwhile, returns from a successful summer on the mountain bike to win three stages and the overall at the Tour of Britain, but his debut elite World Championships bid ends in dramatic fashion in Yorkshire when he cracks and drops from the lead group.
2020: Gent-Wevelgem reignites the rivalry
The 2020 season may be disrupted by the pandemic but it produces one of the major chapters of the rivalry as the pair hit the heights on the road in the delayed Classics.
The cyclo-cross season has been a write-off in terms of rivalry, as Van Aert continues his recovery from his horrific Tour de France crash. Van der Poel starts his season late after his mountain bike and road exploits, but makes up for lost time with wins in all but one of his races, including five World Cups and the Dutch and European titles. At Worlds, he claims his third elite rainbow jersey in Switzerland after riding alone from the first lap. Van Aert is fourth, almost as impressive considering where he’s come from.
On the road
On the road, however, it’s Van Aert who takes a major step forward and seems to leave Van der Poel behind.
He wins Strade Bianche and his first Monument at Milan-San Remo up the season re-start, while Van der Poel looks off the pace. Van Aert goes on to turn heads with his climbing performances at the Dauphiné and Tour de France, raising excitement over his stage racing prospects.
After Van Aert wins silver in the road race and time trial at the World Championships in Imola, and Van der Poel picks up form with wins at Tirreno-Adriatico and the overall at the BinckBank Tour, the pair lock horns on the cobbles in October.
Things come to a head in the finale of Gent-Wevelgem, where the pair mark each other out and Mads Pedersen slips away to win.
Van Aert’s post-race comments set the internet alight.
“Actually, there was only one rider who was really targeting me. Apparently, he preferred to see me lose rather than making a chance to win the race himself."
Van der Poel hits back: “It's a weird reaction from Wout. It's a bit shallow to say I raced to make him lose because I always ride to win the race.”
Talk of mutual hatred went into overdrive ahead of the Tour of Flanders, although, rather presciently, Niels Albert put things into perspective speaking to Cyclingnews ahead of the race.
“It was said in the heat of the moment. The media wants to blow this rivalry up but there is underlying respect between the two. I think they’ll ride together at Flanders and settle it with the legs.”
That’s exactly what they did. Fate had to intervene as Julian Alaphilippe’s race was ended by a motorbike crash, but it produced the finale many were anticipating. Things might have been different had the world champion played the pair off each other, but they got their heads down and settled it in a sprint.
Van der Poel roared as he crossed the line just in front, and his team would later indicate how much of a relief it was for him after Van Aert’s road exploits had seemingly given him the psychological upper hand.
After the late finish to the road season, both riders opt for stripped-back cyclo-cross campaigns.
Bucking the trend of recent years, Van Aert manages to stop Van der Poel’s dominance, if not overturn it. He wins the truncated World Cup series but still insists Van der Poel is the favourite for the World Championships given his superior record in their head-to-head battles: 5-3.
After their Gent-Wevelgem clash, their rivalry dominates the build-up, but there’s little controversy this year. Each looks to put pressure on the other by designating them the favourite, but other than that things are civil.
In the race itself, Van der Poel suffers an early crash but the tables turn when Van Aert punctures on lap 3. Van der Poel rides away and only extends the gap all the way to the finish, where he celebrates a third straight rainbow jersey.
With four in total, he moves ahead of Van Aert, and the psychological upper hand is enhanced by the way Van Aert admits to mentally cracking. A few years ago, it was he who was bragging about never giving up.
On the road
On the road, the Classics showdown continues. Van der Poel produces a phenomenal performance to win Strade Bianche, with Van Aert still short of form after making his debut on the Tuscan gravel, the birth of his child and a recent altitude training camp.
At Tirreno-Adriatico, Van Aert wins the opening stage in a bunch sprint, before Van der Poel beats him on stage 3. In between, they both finish behind Alaphilippe in an uphill finish. Van Aert has the better sprint at MilanSan Remo but it's only for third place as Jasper Stuyven plays off their rivalry and the presence of sprinter Caleb Ewan to win with a late attack.
As for the Flemish Classics, the pair are active at E3 but both come away empty-handed. Van der Poel is outmaneuvered by Deceuninck-QuickStep but at least makes the podium, while Van Aert cracks straight after an attack on the Tiegemberg.
Any hint of weakness, however, is brushed aside two days later at Gent-Wevelgem, which Van Aert wins in imperious fashion. Van der Poel is absent, while Van Aert will miss Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Julian Alaphilippe now drops in for the Tour of Flanders to recreate the three-way Classics face-off but the Van der Poel-Van Aert rivalry will continue to dominate the build-up – this year and for years to come.
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