Mathieu van der Poel surged to his fifth cyclocross world title on home turf in Hoogerheide, outsprinting age-old rival Wout van Aert at the end of a tense 67 minutes of racing to take another rainbow jersey.
The Dutchman and his Belgian adversary were inseparable for the entire race, the culmination of the 2023 Cyclocross World Championships, before Van der Poel came from behind on the final stretch of tarmac to blast past Van Aert and secure the gold medal in front of the packed home fans.
It was the latest chapter in the ongoing battle between the duo, who have stood at the top of the cyclocross world for the best part of a decade and have battled one another for even longer.
"It's really difficult to describe," Van der Poel said after the finish. "I think this is how everybody would say in advance how the race should be – a sprint with me against Wout. For sure, it's incredible. I think this was for sure in my top three of my nicest victories of all time. For sure, I'm going to remember this for a long time."
It was 12 seconds behind the duo that Eli Iserbyt (Belgium) grabbed the bronze medal, beating Lars van der Haar (Netherlands) in a dash for the finish line. The Dutchman had – on the first lap of the race – played a key role for Van der Poel, leading the way early on before launching Van der Poel as Van Aert followed, the pair attacking off into the distance and the remainder of the race.
"I felt super relaxed," Van der Poel said of the final lap of the 10 on which he and Van Aert had done battle. "I think that was maybe the key to win today. I could stay really calm. I think everybody expected me to make a move at the barriers, but I already knew I wanted to go to the sprint. I know the sprint here. It's super strange and difficult to put into words.
"I worked super hard for this one. I had a few preparations with my back again. I reset with my team at training camp and worked towards this goal which I already marked in the beginning of the season. I'm just really, really happy."
Van der Poel also reflected on his rivalry with Van Aert, one which has seen them capture eight rainbow jerseys and five silver and bronze medals at the Cyclocross Worlds.
"I think everybody knows the story; we pushed each other already for 10 years already. Also, the crowds – if it was just me and him it would've been different. We pushed each other to a higher level but also the sport – I've never seen anything like this in cyclocross.
"It's a super cool story we are writing. But it's not the end – we still have the road season and for sure I'll see him again."
How it unfolded
On home ground, the Netherlands took control from the very start of the race, placing Lars van der Haar on the front with Mathieu van der Poel in his wheel and Joris Nieuwenhuis sweeping behind.
Wout van Aert, Belgium's favourite and main rival to Van der Poel, was next in line, battling with Nieuwenhuis for the wheel and moving up early on the opening lap. Midway through, just over three minutes into the race, Van der Haar moved out of the way, letting Van der Poel power past on the uphill rise.
Van Aert immediately responded, moving into second wheel and hanging in there with his career-long rival as the pair blasted off to leave the rest of the riders far behind, the chase group clocking in at 16 seconds down after the first lap.
The pair continued onto lap two evenly matched with Van der Poel at the front, perhaps gaining a slight advantage only when bunny-hopping the planks towards the back end of the circuit. 22 second down, the large chasing group – already looking certain to fight for bronze – were only losing time, though Belgians Gerben Kuypers and Michael Vanthourenhout had jumped off the front.
Lap three saw Van Aert forced to the front until the hill, where Van der Poel put in an effort to try and test the Belgian. He wouldn't get a gap, though once again got a small gap over the planks.
Van Aert was back on the front on the following lap, though it would be a quieter one with the lead duo avoiding any major efforts. Kuypers and Vanthourenhout followed at 28 seconds, while a six-man chase group lay a further 14 seconds back with Van der Haar, Belgians Niels Vandeputte, Laurens Sweeck and Eli Iserbyt, Clement Venturini (France), and Cameron Mason (Great Britain) among their ranks.
After a slow fourth lap, the lead pair put in the second quickest on lap five with a 6:37, though still there would be no separation barring Van Aert ceding some ground on those tricky planks. Back in the chase, things were fracturing as Van der Haar and Iserbyt pushed on, while Vanthourenhout – now 30 seconds down – attacked Kuypers up the hill.
The youngster fell back to the chasers – Van der Haar, Iserbyt and Sweeck – with Mason, Vandeputte and Venturini having been distanced at the midway point.
Up front, Van Aert mostly rode on the front, though Van der Poel did put in another acceleration over the bridge and again at the planks, though without putting the Belgian in major trouble. Further back, Van der Haar and Iserbyt had caught and passed Vanthourenhout as the battle for bronze was turned on its head.
Lap eight was the slowest yet – seven minutes for the leaders – as the chasers closed to within half a minute and kept on pushing. Up front, neither man was willing to put in a big effort just yet, with Van der Poel sticking close behind Van Aert for much of the circuit.
The pair had been inseparable throughout the race and were still together heading onto the final lap of 10, while Iserbyt and Van der Haar were set to fight for bronze at 18 seconds down and 24 up on Kuypers and Vanthourenhout.
Van Aert led the way through the early wooded section of the closing lap before Van der Poel shifted to the front a third of the way through ahead of the several mid-lap uphill runs and bridges.
A total of 65 minutes had ticked by, into the sharp end of the race, and the situation remained the same, with Van Aert back to the front but neither man dealing a killer blow. The pair were side by side over the planks before things slowed down – neither man wanting to lead out the final sprint.
In the end, it was Van Aert who was on the front up the late steps, down the descent, and onto the final strip of tarmac.
Van der Poel was first to launch, coming from behind on the start of the finishing straight. The opening burst was enough to push past Van Aert and seize the initiative, with the Belgian unable to match the move. He would have to settle for second place – his fourth silver medal at elite level – as Van der Poel celebrated in front of packed Dutch crowds, having already claimed the rainbows in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Switzerland, and Belgium.
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