Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel went into the 2018 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Valkenburg, Netherlands, as the overwhelming favourite to win the rainbow jersey but the sport has yet again shown that it doesn't play favourites.
The victory went to Belgium's Wout van Aert for a third consecutive year. His compatriot Michael Vanthourenhout took the silver medal. Van der Poel finished with bronze.
Van der Poel, who won the world title in 2015, amassed 26 dominating victories and won the overall title of the World Cup series, the DVV Verzekeringen Trofee, the European Championships, and he is leading the Superprestige series.
But his performance in Valkenburg was almost unrecognisable as he fought his hardest to barely grasp a place on the podium. It was all he could do to bring the Netherlands a bronze medal in the championship race.
"I didn't make many mistakes," van der Poel said in an post-race interview with Sporza. "Wout was far above the others today. Mentally, it's very difficult to come here with the goal of becoming world champion and in the second lap you already realize that it's not going to happen. It was mentally hard.
"The crowd - which was a real good crowd - pulled me through the difficult moments today," van der Poel said of the fans at his home event.
"I couldn't allow it to happen, that I wouldn't crack the podium here in Valkenburg. I had to go deep to get that bronze medal. I made the mistake before to let go of the podium and I was not going to make that mistake again."
In comparison, van der Poel's biggest rival Van Aert rode away almost flawlessly along the challenging course to win his third elite men's world title. Even after a sub-par season where Van Aert questioned his own ability and form.
Van Aert had beat van der Poel on few occasions this season; namely at the World Cups in Zeven and Namur, however, many speculated that those victories only happened because van der Poel was either ill or had ill-timed, decisive mechanicals.
Both were healthy in Valkenburg, and the race started as many would have expected; with the two leading men of cyclo-cross battling for the victory, far ahead of the rest of their competitors.
On the second of seven laps, however, Van Aert made his move and although van der Poel initially responded, it was clear he wasn't able to fully respond to the challenge.
"The pace was high but I didn’t feel like I was hitting the red zone; it was close though. When you come here to get the jersey and you’re been put under pressure that early… I wasn't good enough today."
Almost simultaneously, as Van Aert put the pieces of his cyclo-cross season firmly back together, van der Poel began to unravel. He hit a pole on the descent. He had difficulty in the deep ruts and was off his bike, but Van Aert was already gone. He also struggled with his jersey, trying to unzip it, and generally looked uncomfortable in the opening laps. In the last half, he simply looked defeated.
Van Aert crossed the line to secure his third world title by a large margin - 2:13 ahead of runner-up Michael Vanthourenhout and 2:30 ahead of van der Poel.
Asked if he was disappointed, van der Poel said, "I knew it last year, too, two or three laps before the end. When you're beaten like that, then you're beaten on your value. I said it before, when you're beaten on your real value then I can live with that."
Van der Poel said the course was difficult, and it was arguably the most challenging course that a cyclo-cross championship race has seen in recent years. It was technical, had steep run ups and deep, thick, muddy ruts. But van der Poel said that he had no excuses.
“It was a peculiar course but I don’t want to use that as an excuse,” van der Poel said. "With my current form I think I should've been able to handle this course, too.
"It was hard course, a bit atypical, lots of running but I should be able to handle that, too. Today that wasn’t the case."