Wout van Aert joined a very elite club this weekend when he became only the sixth rider to win three consecutive elite men's titles at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships. Van Aert is the first to take three in a row since his compatriot Roland Liboton claimed his third and final rainbow jersey in 1984.
"It's pretty historic to do that in this sport, the names that precede me are icons, it means a lot to get into that group, I've worked hard for it and now it's time to enjoy it," Van Aert told Sporza after the race.
Van Aert still has some way to go if he hopes to match another fellow Belgian Erik De Vlaeminck, who won six of his seven titles in consecutive years. Still just 23, there is plenty of time for Van Aert to add to his tally.
Van Aert's third win was arguably his best, with two minutes separating himself from his compatriot Michael Vanthourenhout. He rarely looked troubled, other than a crash into the barriers on the closing laps caused by a lapse in concentration. Many expected Mathieu van der Poel to dominate the race as he had been doing throughout the season, but the Dutchman looked a shadow of his usual self as he struggled to third place. Van Aert said that it had been one of his best days on the bike.
"I was expecting a big fight, a duel with Mathieu," said Van Aert. "It was especially a challenge to follow Mathieu in the first lap, I knew that would be the most difficult part of the race.
"On the second lap, I felt strong and I was looking at my pace. I had a nice gap and I was able to maintain that pace for the rest of the World Championships, which was one of the best days of my life on the bike. I went really well, I cannot believe it has turned out this way."
Van Aert's winning gap not normal, says Adrie van der Poel
Mathieu van der Poel's father, Adrie, was understandably disappointed for his son following the race. A former world champion himself, Van der Poel Senior called Van Aert's winning margin 'not normal' and said that the Belgian rode 'without breathing'.
"If the difference goes up to two minutes, that is not normal," he told Belgian broadcaster Sporza. "He rides around, but he does not breathe."
The comment has caused something of a commotion in Belgium with Sporza commentator Michel Wuyts calling his insinuations 'a dangerous game.'
Adrie van der Poel continued by saying that, in his eyes, Mathieu van der Poel remained the season's top rider, despite a poor day out in Valkenburg.
"With all due respect, Wout does not even stand in the shadow of Mathieu in terms of victories this season," said Van der Poel. "Most will say that there is only one day, but I do not think so. Mathieu is just the best rider this season. He does not wear that rainbow jersey and that is a pity, but his time will come. Mathieu and Wout had a different schedule this season and after the debacle in America (in the World Cup), Van Aert put everything on this World Championship.
"Mathieu rode for what he was worth, he has had a great season with victories almost everywhere."
Hyde: Van Aert can be the next Boonen
Recently crowned US national champion Stephen Hyde was his country's best finisher in 15th place. The 30-year-old from Florida finished almost seven minutes behind Van Aert on the extremely muddy course.
Hyde and the rest of the field had been put through the ringer by Van Aert, but he had nothing but praise, saying that the 23-year-old could become 'the next Tom Boonen.' Van Aert will get his first real chance to test himself at the Classics this season with his Veranda's Willems Crelan squad getting wild cards for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
"I'm not surprised," Hyde said after the race. "He has always had his eyes on the prize, he was so focused on this World Championship. It was also quite a task, because Mathieu van der Poel is so strong. He will also become one of the best riders on the road. He can be the new Tom Boonen, he is strong enough."
Van Aert likely to start road season at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Following his third straight world cyclo-cross title, there is little lime for Van Aert to sit back and enjoy his achievements.
According to Van Aert's coach Niels Albert, he is set to race for the first time as the 2018 world champion at this weekend's DVV Verzekeringen Trofee-Krawatencross in Lille, followed by the Telenet Superprestige Hoogstraten on Sunday, before he embarks on his road programme.
Albert told Het Nieuwsblad that Van Aert would likely make his road debut in three weeks' time at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad as he targets a full classics campaign.