This article originally appeared in Bicycle Club, March edition 2021
The season of the Spring Classics is here, the period when the world’s best riders take on the historic one-day races full of intense racing over huge distances and challenging routes. Mostly held in Belgium, the Netherlands and two in Italy, races such as La Flèche Wallone, Milan San Remo, Gent-Wevelgem, Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders mean very little to non-cyclists. Yet to us these are gladiatorial arenas fit for the blood-thirsty Romans of old, where dreams are broken and legends created. They are the hardest one-day events in the world and the men and women that prevail in victory are the toughest, hardest professionals the sport produces.
And yet this year, a rivalry that began almost two decades ago, between two little boys, threatens to steal the thunder of even these great races.
It is a rivalry that, in the words of one the two protagonists of this all-consuming drama, “threatens to overshadow even the sport itself.”
Professional cycling is full of great double acts. In the 1950s the Italians Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali divided a nation with their Herculean duels, with Coppi representing a ‘New Italy’ and Bartali a more traditional, Catholic past. The French provided another with Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor (aka The Eternal Second) in the 1960s. The raffish Anquetil outshone his adversary in results but was never taken to the nation’s heart in quite the way the underdog Poulidor was. In the 60s and into the 70s, it was Belgium that produced two of the all-time greats in the immense Eddy Merckx and the dogged Roger de Vlaeminck, the two men pushing each other to their limits and beyond time after time. In recent years, the Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara and Belgian Tom Boonen lit up the early Classics season with incredible feats that will be remembered for decades.
And now, lighting up our TV screens, just as many thought they had seen it all in professional cycling, we are witness to a battle between two cyclists that is unlike no other, that has been raging already for 18 years. It is one that belongs firmly in the pantheon of the greats.
When the 8 year old Belgian boy turned up for his very first cyclocross race he met a Dutch lad of the same age. The young Netherlander was wearing a replica kit of the great Dutch professional team Rabobank and his small bike was the best that money could buy. Little did either of the boys nor anyone else present realise at that time that this innocent meeting was to be the beginning of a rivalry that would take the cycling world by storm, enchanting commentators, fans and fellow professionals alike.
The Belgian boy was Wout Van Aert. The Dutch youngster was Mathieu Van Der Poel. Van Aert grew up in a non-cycling family and as a child spent most of his time playing football, dreaming of becoming a footbal professional. Slowly he began to gravitate towards cycling and found himself a natural on two wheels, yet it wasn’t util his early teens that he fully committed himself to racing.
For Van Der Poel it was somewhat different. His father, Adri, is a former six-times National Champion and was World Cyclocross Champion in 1996. He was also twice a stage winner at the Tour de France and a winner of several Classics during his career. His grandfather was the aforementioned Raymond Poulidor, winner of the 1964 Vuelta a Espana, and a five time runner up at the Tour de France
These two boys from differing cycling backgrounds have both gone on to do things that no other cyclist has ever done, emerging from the steadfastly Northern European world of cyclocross, with multiple world titles each, to then branch out to compete in road cycling (and also mountain biking in Van Der Poel’s case), whilst continuing to be utterly dominant in their original discipline. Others have made the same move, but in every previous case, the demands of road cycling have meant that they lost their edge in cyclocross.
Yet not Van Der Poel and Van Aert. Added to that, both immediately began to shake up the world of professional road cycling. Others have made the same move and been successful, but not as quickly nor as spectacularly and consistently. In 2019, Van Der Poel stunned the sport with victories in the World CycloCross Championships, the MTB European XC Championships, and also in three Classics: the Amstel Gold Race, Brabanste Pijl and Dwars door Vlaanderen. In 2020 he won the Dutch National Road Race Championships, the BrinckBank Tour, and took victory at one of the greatest races of all, the Tour of Flanders. Then he won, for the 3rd time, the World Cyclocross Championships in early 2020 (equalling Van Aert’s tally), a feat he repeated again in early February 2021.
Van Aert’s rise was similarly majestic. In 2019, whilst still the reigning cyclocross World Champion, he guided his team to victory in the team time trial on Stage 4 at the Tour, then won a brilliant sprint on Stage 5. The following year he won the Belgian National Road Championships, Milan San Remo and Strade Bianche. He won the Belgian National Time Trial Championships and, the icing on the cake, won two more stages at the Tour de France, whilst also riding brilliantly in the mountains, leading some to believe he could one day win the Grand Tours.
“It’s really important that I have someone pushing my limits, and I do the same with him as well – we make each other stronger,” Van Der Poel said the morning after beating the Belgian to his 4th World Cyclocross title in early February, 2020. “I think we’ve had some really good battles in the past, and it starts to be a story of its own, and you see that it’s getting bigger than the sport itself. It’s pretty cool to have someone like him, and it also benefits me.”
Everyone who follows cyclocross and has seen the races between the two know exactly what Van Der Poel is talking about here. For the first few years, as youngsters, it was the Dutchman who had the upper edge, beating Van Aert more often than not. But then the power began to shift, with the Belgian maturing into a fierce competitor. In the winter cyclocross races, for years and now still to a great extent, it was a question of who would come third as the top two places would be taken by Van Aert or Van Der Poel, as they relentlessly pushed each other to near-flawless performances.
2019 though saw the two rivals’ paths begin to diverges slightly, at least on the road. Van Aert arrived at the Italian Strade Bianche race as a relative novice in the upper echelons of professional road cycling. Yet the Strade is the perfect race for a cyclocross champion, featuring several kilometres of unpaved roads that require a high degree of technical skill to travel at high speed, especially in the wet. All those years in the cold northern mud served him well. Amazing those commentating live, he escaped in a two man break mid-way through the race. As a TV camera offered a close up on him, one commentator marvelled at the power and tenacity of the 24 year old.
“Wout Van Aert is an absolute unknown quantity, we have no idea what to expect from him,” he said. Van Aert went on to finish a highly credible third place.
Van der Poel’s arrival at the top of the sport was even more spectacular. He chose the Amstel Gold Race to announce his presence. Making his way into a powerful break with several top riders, Van Der Poel was dropped on a tough hill. Jakob Fugslang and Julian Alaphilippe, two powerful and experienced riders, built a big lead up ahead and all looked lost for those behind. Yet Van Der Poel dug deep, deeper than anyone thought the expert cyclocross rider ever could – than any currentrider, for that matter, ever could – and individually dragged a gaggle of rivals to within 200 meters of the men ahead. He should have been exhausted, having ridden so hard for so long, putting out massive watts (he averaged 337w for 6 hours and 20 minutes), but no. From somewhere he found the power and the will to sprint and took the victory.
“This is incredible”, screamed one commentator. “I have never, ever seen anything like this in my life!”
Another roared, “That is the most extraordinary finish to a bike race that I have ever seen!”
And then came 2020 and with it a renewal of the fierce duel between Van Aert and Van Der Poel, but this time on the road. The cycling season was hit by the emergence of CoVid 19, so many of the Classics usually held in Spring were postponed til the Autumn, but both Van Der Poel and Van Aert arrived at Gent-Wevelgem, (October 11th 2020) in fine form and as joint favoured to take victory. Their race however was spoiled as the pair spent more time looking at each other and allowed a break to get away, form which the race was won. Van Aert complained immediately after the race that he had lost because of Van Der Poel’s negative tactics. It was the first time that their rivalry had become bitter.
“Apparently he [Van Der Poel] would rather that I lost than that he won himself, said the Belgian. “Now we both have nothing. I rode myself to win the race, but I was not given any freedom. I am disappointed because it was really possible. I would also have had a chance in the sprint. But I could not react to everything. And it was always the same rider [Van Der Poel] who was in my wheel. “
In response, Van der Poel said Van Aert’s complaint was a “strange reaction” and that he “always rides to win.”
One week later the pair lined up for the Tour of Flanders. The finale was thrilling, showcasing the immense talent and power of these two riders, as they escaped together to contest the long final sprint. Mathieu Van Der Poel took the victory and after 243.3km he won by less than half a wheel.
Even seasoned professionals are enamoured by the rivalry between Van Aert and Van Der Poel, as sign of deep respect from riders who steeled with a desire to beat their peers.
“I love to see them race,” says Greg Van Avermaet, who has seen both up close in the Classics. “It’s something great for cycling. It’s cool to see, even as a pro cyclist.”
Another rider, former World Champion and Classics legend Philippe Gilbert has also praised the duo, but he has words of caution too.
“I do not know if it is possible to maintain such intensity and lifestyle for a long time, it is mentally very demanding,” he said in January last year. ““They have no life except cycling. I don’t know if they’ll be able to race that long. It may be that they will have short but successful careers, or they may have to choose between once discipline or the other [road cycling or cyclocross]. It’s not easy to race and train for 365 days a year.”
Van Aert has expressed worry about his schedule, racing road from Spring to Autumn and cyclocross through the Winter. He said recently that “I worry what I’m doing to myself”, due to having such a busy schedule and no real break in the year.
We may have seen evidence of that in Van Aert’s efforts at the recent World Cyclocross Championships. He finished 2nd to Van Der Poel, who dominated the event.
“Mentally, I cracked,” he said. “That’s not something that I’m used at and I’m disappointed about that.”
And then came Strade BIanche 2021. Van Der Poel didn’t just win, he sent a message to the peloton so strong that he may as well have had a bloody horse head delivered to the boudoir of each of his challengers. He didn’t just make the race, he didn’t just define the race, he transcended the race. It was a performance of sublime violence. Ferociously beautiful, and one that Van Aert, who came 4th, would have had to watch later on TV, envy bubbling in his veins.
“What! The! Fuuuuck!” Exclaimed Tom Boonen in Het Laatste Nieuws. “What was all that? On Saturday I sat staring at Mathieu van der Poel with my mouth open.”
“We have known for some time that he is a phenomenon but his dominance in the final of the Strade Bianche surpassed everything. Nota bene: the most explosive rider in the world!”
“It was pazzesco (crazy),” said Nibali. “I switched on the television for the last 60km and I saw what Mathieu did. Mamma mia!
“Power meters] can be useful in training but not in racing. The data isn’t useful unless you have a point of reference. We’re better off switching our bike computers off in races or not looking at it.”
Anyone I’ve coached will know that I fully agree with Nibali here on this, and this is one of the reasons that make Van Der Poel so great to watch, and, let’s remember, Wout Van Aert too. Both ride with their hearts on their sleeves, their colours nailed to the mast.
For now, with the Dutchman’s World Cyclocross title win and now the utterly dominant display at Strade, it is Van Der Poel that looks like he will be (if he is not already) the defining rider of his era. Has Van Aert gone too deep for too long? Is the mental beating he took at the Cyclocross World’s still hampering him? Or was his timing off, and will he bounce back for Paris-Roubaix?
And what of other riders, such as Alaphilippe, Stybar, the impressive Pidcock and then the Strade’s third placed man, Bernal, who might surprise again?
All this intrigue makes the 2021 Springs Classics season one not to miss.