how Mathieu van der Poel beat Wout van Aert at the Cyclocross World Championships

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Mathieu van der Poel had played on the surprise, so it sounded after the World Cup in Hoogerheide. Where he had knocked out Wout van Aert not on the beams, but in the sprint. Who the past and character of MvdP understands that this move and its revival after a lesser Christmas period, however, was not at all surprising. An analysis.

Two days before the 2019 Amstel Gold Race, the NOS visited Mathieu van der Poel and his sports director Christoph Roodhooft. The latter made a striking, but striking comparison in the report. Between Van der Poel and… The Ramones, the American music group from the seventies / eighties, which is considered the first punk rock group.

‘Punkers,’ said Roodhooft, ‘are people who out of the box think, act contrary. That suits Mathieu, he doesn’t race according to the applicable cycling laws.’ NOS journalist Han Cock concluded his report with: ‘Van der Poel does what he wants, and he wants what he does.’

Two days later he won the Amstel Gold Race, after a miraculous comeback in the final kilometre. By doing what no one expected. And with a killer instinct that even assassins envy.

Balken history demined

Flash forward to the Cyclocross World Championships, 2023. Announced as The Rumble in the Jungle of cyclocross, the ultimate titanic duel between Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert. With a slight advantage for the Kempenaar, it was said, because he had knocked out his arch rival several times during the Christmas period.

There was indeed the whipped-up bar gate, moved from place by course builder Adrie van der Poel, but Van Aert demined that firecracker masterfully, even though he was a DOVO specialist. He even praised Pa Van der Poel: ‘A class course, an example in terms of safety, including those beams.’

And he had no problem with the beams themselves. “Even though Mathieu van der Poel jumps faster and better,” Van Aert admitted.

Not only a classy way to put Adrie van der Poel out of the wind, but also a way not to give son Mathieu the mental advantage. Which would have been the case if Van Aert had made a fuss about it.

Nevertheless, the Kempenaar started with the idea that his eternal rival would try to make a hit there, on the way and certainly in the final round. And with an apparent nervousness, because in the preceding interviews Van Aert was remarkably brief. In contrast to Van der Poel, whose mental barometer was on sunny.

Switch moments

That was reversed a good month earlier, when in Koksijde and Zonhoven the Dutchman’s back and fighting spirit gave way under the pounding of the Belgian. But, it added MvdP : only the Cyclocross World Cup counted. Gone are the days when he insists on winning everything. It was just a matter of getting his back in order and improving his fitness towards the World Cup.

During that team training camp, one of Van der Poel’s most underestimated qualities floated to the surface again: how he can switch to a winner’s mode after a disappointment, and be extremely focused towards the next goal.

Sports director Christoph Roodhooft recently discussed this in the five ‘switch moments’ of MvdP in the cycling guide of Sport/Wielermagazineand that also turned out to be the case again for the Cyclocross World Cup.

Van der Poel was mostly silent, except for the press chats during the team presentation. And also completely disappeared from the radar on Strava. Striking, because last year he had put all his training online. No one this time had to see how maniacal he was looking forward to the World Cup. Although it turned out during the World Cup round in Besançon, the week before Hoogerheide, that the four-time world champion was more than ready.

Van der Poel says he started the hyped World Cup with ‘zero stress’. Although, he indicated beforehand, he could only make up for his winter with a profit.

While Van Aert slightly changed course beforehand: his winter had already been successful, the World Cup – the only real goal of the cyclo-cross season for him too – was subordinate to the Higher Good: trying to win the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix.


Van der Poel’s hyperfocus and bite was immediately apparent in the opening round of the World Cup, when he took over from Lars van der Haar after 3 minutes and 10 seconds, and stormed up the Brabantse Wal like a man possessed. Van Aert was able to hook up his trailer – ‘He plays for remorque’, said Paul Herijgers – and only took over after the second round, on the asphalt.

Not with a surplus, because Van der Poel had already pushed his heart rate to the limit. The Dutchman would do that again in the third and seventh rounds with several electric shocks on the only sloping strip, each time with a surprising attack from the preceding bridge.

He couldn’t knock out a sometimes grimacing Van Aert, but he couldn’t return a blow either. ‘Not even half. I hung on it like a flag. I had to race like a cowardly runner,” he said afterwards. Forgetting his acceleration on the Brabantse Wal in the fifth round, albeit without any impact on Mathieu van der Poel’s cover.

He continued to put pressure, even with a few gears on and after the famous beam passage: in the third, fifth, sixth and seventh lap he put Van Aert within a few meters, but he was always back on track fairly quickly. Also because the looking back Van der Poel never fully continued afterwards.

He would do that in the tenth and final round, Van Aert thought, even after MvdP in the eighth and ninth rounds it had been remarkably slow. And even the pace dropped sharply: in the eighth round, he and Van Aert only put 21e lap time down, and in the final lap only the 14e time.

Silence before the storm

The calm before the storm that never came, because Van der Poel surprisingly let his rival pass 1 minute and 20 seconds before the last beam passage. While everyone thought he would take the lead anyway.

Van Aert was the first to jump over the beams, although Van der Poel jumped over them so quickly that he immediately came next to the Kempenaar in one go. Impress, without speeding up afterwards. Again the reverse of what everyone expected – out of the box, contrary – but that unexpected is what you can expect from the racing Joey Ramone.

A surprising move that Van der Poel had already thought of during his three reconnaissance rounds, which he had only completed on Sunday afternoon. The master improviser thus knocked the more structurally thinking Wout van Aert off balance with a calculated and creative/intuitive gamble.

After all, he remained in the lead after the last beam passage, while he had only one scenario in his head: in the wheel of MvdP start the sprint.

The man from Herentals was so happy that he looked back ten times up to and including the start of the asphalt strip, did not start the sprint himself, but was even surprised by Van der Poel. Because he had already come alongside when Van Aert looked sideways one last time.

With his hands on top of the brake levers and aided by a strong tailwind, he immediately grabbed that WvA could no longer close. As Van der Poel had done in the Tour of Flanders 2020. Then, admittedly, after six hours of racing, from the front and with the wind from the side. But then also after an explosive sprint of about twelve to thirteen seconds.

No plan B

Again Van Aert was so surprised, because this time he had not taken into account another scenario – he who would start the sprint in front. Not applying what his mental coach Rudy Heylen taught him at the beginning of his cyclo-cross career: keep the focus when the race does not unfold as you had in mind. So that you can immediately switch to plan B, C or D.

Van Aert did not have that this time. And he couldn’t apply either, because he was physically on the limit. As national coach Sven Vanthourenhout quoted: ‘The fact that Wout did not start immediately in the sprint means that he was not completely sure. And maybe he wouldn’t have won that way.’

Van Aert also (partly) admitted that afterwards, with great respect for his opponent: that even in the slipstream he could not get an inch closer. And especially that Van der Poel had been physically the better.

As much as his surprising sprint gamble, that made all the difference on a super fast course (with an average of almost 28 km per hour, the fastest cross of the season).

Not yet in top condition

Striking, given the dominance that Van Aert displayed during the Christmas period, but on the other hand not. As his coach Marc Lamberts told HLN on Saturday: ‘When I hear some talk about top condition, I am flattened with laughter. With the form that Wout has now, he cannot win a classic and certainly cannot shine in the Tour.’

The fact remains that Van Aert again let himself be lost in the sprint. And that Van der Poel was a cold-blooded, creative killer in the most important cross of the season. As he, as a born winner, has already done 266 times in his cyclo-cross career from the novices.

His clenched fists and primal scream at the finish, his many high fives afterwards and the emotions later on the podium showed how much this world title meant to Mathieu van der Poel. It was no coincidence that he said that it was one of the top three of his most beautiful victories ever, a total of almost 400 victories across all disciplines.

A fifth world title in cyclo-cross that, above all, broke the downward spiral in which Van der Poel had ended up, after his retirement in the Tour, the bell pull case in Wollongong and his lesser Christmas period.

Because MvdP when a master switch then flipped the switch again, did what he wanted and wanted so badly what he did in Hoogerheide: be a punk who can ride a damn fast bike.


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