Defending three-time world champion Wout Van Aert (Belgium) had to settle for the silver medal at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Bogense. Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands) rode away to a solo victory, and his first rainbow jersey since 2015, but Van Aert sportingly said his rival deserved to be world champion.
"I am glad that I can turn the page,” Van Aert told Sporza. "I fought, I raced as fast as possible, and I think like everyone, I must admit that Mathieu was stronger today, he deserves to be world champion."
Van Aert was relieved the cyclo-cross season is over, after several months riddled with legal battles over his contract. He will now turn his attention to the road racing season, where he will compete in his first full year on the WorldTour after having signed a three-year deal with Jumbo-Visma.
"I am very relieved that today is over," Van Aert said. "I have the peace that I've taken this jersey off and it feels like a load is falling from my shoulders. I feel that I have done everything I can, and that gives me peace of mind."
Van der Poel went into the race as the favourite to win the title after his dominant performances during the World Cup, where he won six rounds, and other race series. His ability to secure the world title again was only questioned because of his performances in the last three editions, where he also entered as the favourite, only to be beaten by Van Aert.
Van der Poel did not disappoint, proving not only to be the strongest rider at the World Championships, but also the most technically skilled for the flat and fast course in Bogense. The Belgian team entered the race with two outside favourites in Van Aert, who has not performed at his best this season only winning one round of the World Cup, and new national champion Toon Aerts, who won the overall World Cup title.
Van Aert responded to Van der Poel's strong attack mid-race, closing down a five-second gap to the Dutchman. However, a slight bobble from Van Aert along the off-camber, uphill section of the course cost him valuable time that he wasn’t able to regain.
"Our only chance was to stay with Mathieu as long as possible, so we had to force it in the beginning," Van Aert explained.
"I raced against Mathieu again, but during the lap I was so in the red that I made a mistake on the slanting side, where Mathieu took a few seconds again, he raced off and raced faster than I did."
Van Aert lost time on each lap but tried to hold on to second place. He was caught by his Belgian teammate Aerts, and although it looked like Aerts would secure the silver medal, a crash near the end of the race allowed Van Aert to pass him, forcing Aerts to accept the bronze medal.
"I have to remember that I could compete for the second place," said Aerts, please with his overall season. "I feel that I have been able to connect this season and have raced away from the others.
"I have finished third, but I have been able to compete for second place and I have to remember that – I'm satisfied."