Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands) won the much-anticipated duel against Wout van Aert (Belgium) on Sunday afternoon in the sand of Ostend, Belgium, and prolonged his possession of the world title for a third year in a row.
With their thrilling sprint for the victory in the Tour of Flanders in the back of everyone’s mind, the question was how this first major duel since the October road race would unfold.
Even though the first half of Sunday’s Cyclo-cross World Championship race was a thriller, Van der Poel ended up completing a long solo ride which wasn’t what the fans at home - none were allowed along the course - were hoping for. With this fourth world title, he came level with cyclo-cross legend Roland Liboton, who racked up his world titles in the early 80s. Although for a time on Sunday, Van der Poel said, “briefly it wasn’t looking great.”
At the age of 26, and with three successive wins at the Worlds, there’s still time to close on the seven ‘cross titles from Erik De Vlaeminck, although the rivalry with Van Aert will not make that an easy quest. Coming into the race the only thing that seemed certain was that either Van der Poel or Van Aert would get the rainbow jersey. That prediction proved correct as the duo left the competition behind after 200 seconds of racing.
During the opening lap the two were a close match, checking out each other. Worth noticing was how Van der Poel briefly dipped into the North Sea during their passage at the seashore.
“I was feeling too hot during the opening lap. My rule is to ride with leg warmers if the temperature drops below 5 degrees Celsius and my phone app indicated that the real-feel temperature was minus three but it didn’t feel like that at all. A few times, I intentionally rode into the sea to cool everything down,” Van der Poel explained.
“I hesitated for a long time to decide whether or not to ride with leg warmers. I ended up being one of the few riders to ride with leg warmers, something that is often the case. I prefer to feel too warm than too cold.”
During the second lap, Van der Poel received a first blow. He got stuck in the sand just before a giant fly-over with a gradient of 21 degrees. Van Aert rode by and powered through the sand and away from the Dutch ace. A small gap of three seconds seemed worthless to talk about but Van Aert made Van der Poel work hard to bridge back up.
“I was surprised by the track I followed. The tracks were quite deep. I wasn’t at my limit at that point. Van Aert managed to get a good gap because I got stuck in the sand and I didn’t want to blow up my engine in trying to close the gap back down,” Van der Poel said.
Suddenly Van der Poel received a second blow when he went over the handlebars on the muddy grass sections in the Hippodrome.
“It wasn’t a great judgment from my side but I lost the right track,” Van der Poel said, and then laughed when he saw the replay of the crash. “It ended up being quite a tumble but I didn’t hurt anything. It was no fun to crash and see the gap getting bigger again. It didn’t break my morale or anything. I felt like I was still able to come back.”
At the beginning of the third lap, Van der Poel trailed Van Aert by nearly 20 seconds and few people would put money on the defending champion at that point of the race. Still, a good passage through the sand just before the second ascent of the bridge brought him back to 10 seconds from Van Aert.
Apart from the time loss during the crash, there was additional time loss coming up, being forced into the pit area to get a fresh bike.
“My saddle was broken during the crash. I decided not to switch at the first pit area because it would’ve cost me five additional seconds which I didn’t want to offer that early, even though the gap was significant straight away,” Van der Poel explained.
Puncture and sand prevent 'more thrilling race'
When entering the Hippodrome, Van der Poel switched bikes and the gap on Van Aert grew to 13 seconds. Afterwards, it turned out that Van Aert noticed his puncture while riding along the same pit area. Van der Poel quickly gained back ground and before the end of the third lap he blasted by Van Aert.
“Briefly it wasn’t looking great. I did have the feeling that it was possible to set things straight. I didn’t panic, not even after the crash. I was lucky to come back on Wout economically because Wout punctured. I felt like I was coming closer and Wout’s puncture certainly helped. It’s a pity that it happened,” the Dutch rider said.
“I felt like I was getting stronger each lap and started to get the hang of the course. During the second half of the race I felt like I was in control of the race. If you’re looking at the second half of the race, then the balance is clear from that perspective that it would’ve been possible for me to come back without him puncturing but maybe it would’ve been a more thrilling race."
By the time Van Aert had switched bikes in the beginning of the fourth lap, Van der Poel turned his deficit into a bonus of 11 seconds. That fourth lap was thrilling to watch as the two giants were riding a pursuit, with Van Aert slowly bringing down the deficit.
The final sand sections were not going smooth for Van Aert while Van der Poel clicked out of his pedals on the steep climb but showed skill when staying in a rhythm. The gap remained about eight seconds when completing the fourth lap.
At the beginning of the fifth lap, Van Aert went all in. He came back as close as three seconds just before reaching the sand section before the second ascent, but then he got stuck in the sand and saw Van der Poel riding away. Van der Poel felt like that was what made the difference on Sunday.
“I rode through it. It’s the section of which I said before the race that it would be most decisive. It was possible to make the difference there by riding nicely through it, through the tracks or getting stuck in the sand. It’s also the section where Van Aert rode away from me when I got stuck. That was the most important section in the course today.
“If you go fast through the sand then you’re reaching the bridge with less lactic acid in the legs, whereas if you get stuck in the sand then you lose time there, then your legs are full of lactic acid and you still have to make speed to make it over the bridge. The sum of all this can be a difference of 15-20 seconds,” Van der Poel said.
Every lap, Van Aert struggled on that section while Van der Poel rode smooth lines, and as a result a handful of seconds were added to his lead on each passage.
Van der Poel explained that he liked the approach towards Worlds due to the proximity of the race location and the short build-up to the big event.
“It was ideal. Yesterday I was still back home gaming. In the evening my girlfriend and I drove without stress to the team hotel. For me that’s much more enjoyable than arriving at the team hotel on Wednesday and being in the Worlds atmosphere every day. I do have to say that I became better at handling this in the last few years and work towards the race in a more relaxed approach,” Van der Poel said.
He’s heading back to his home now before focusing on the road season with his Alpecin-Fenix team.
“I’m taking a break of about a week. At the end of the month I’m scheduled to ride the UAE Tour. From there, we’re building up. Hopefully that will go according to plan because there’s been cancellation of races like Valencia where our team was planned to race,” Van der Poel said.
When asked about his goals he named the Ronde van Vlaanderen and his maiden Paris-Roubaix. “I really look forward to Roubaix because it will be my first participation but I’ve also marked out to defend my title in the Ronde.”
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