When the world cyclocross champion is crowned on Sunday in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium, there’s a very good chance the rainbow jersey will be awarded to a 21-year-old man.
It won’t, however, be the coronation of the youngest-ever world champion — that happened last year, in Tabor, Czech Republic, when Dutch rider Mathieu van der Poel soloed to victory at age 20.
The runner-up that day was Belgium’s Wout van Aert, who was arguably the stronger rider, but was burdened by mechanical problems and crashes and could do no better than second after a furious late-race chase.
Together, the two riders have ushered in a new era for cyclocross fans, one marked not only by a generational passing of the torch, but also by a rivalry that could last a decade, or longer.
(Throw in the third-place finisher at last year’s world championship, Dutch rider Lars van der Haar, and the average age of the 2015 elite podium was younger than that of the U23 podium.)
Both men have dominated the 2015-16 cyclocross season in their own way.
Van Aert (Crelan-Vastgoedservice) was the early frontrunner, seemingly winning without opposition in September and October while van der Poel (BKCP-Corendon)was absent, nursing a knee injury that had required surgery.
By early January, van Aert had 14 victories and led all three major cyclocross series: Superprestige, BPost Bank Trophy, and the UCI World Cup. In most scenarios, that might be a career-defining season.
Over the past six weeks, however, the world champion has been in a league of his own, winning four consecutive World Cups, often by large margins.
Last weekend, in the mud at Hoogerheide, van der Poel was alone from start to finish, winning by 48 seconds. A week earlier, at Ligniéres-en-Berry, France, van der Poel finished well ahead of van Aert — enough that he could pop a wheelie across the finish line.
Since van der Poel’s return to racing at the Koksijde World Cup, where he placed an impressive third, he’s won nine of the 16 events he’s entered, including the last five.
While both men are well-rounded cyclocross racers, the general consensus is that van der Poel is a superior bike handler, while van Aert has the bigger engine.
When it comes to genetic gifts, however, van der Poel is not lacking.
His father, Adri, was a star in his own right, with wins at the Tour of Flanders, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Amstel Gold, Clásica de San Sebastián, Brabantse Pijl, and stages in the Tour de France — though he had to wait until age 35 to win his one and only world cyclocross title, in Montreuil, in 1996.
His maternal grandfather is Raymond Poulidor, who won events such as La Flèche Wallonne , Milan-San Remo, and Paris-Nice, and famously finished on the podium of the Tour de France eight times between 1962 and 1976 without ever wearing the yellow jersey.
Though van der Poel was twice a world junior champion in cyclocross (as well as once on the road), he never won a U23 cyclocross title. Van Aert beat van der Poel at the 2014 U23 world championship, in Hoogerheide, and both riders opted to race as elites in 2015.
It was there, in Tabor, that van der Poel took the biggest win of his career. And based on the results of the past six weeks, he returns to worlds as the pre-race favorite.
“I’ll repeat what I’ve been saying for weeks: To me there’s only one top favorite for Zolder and that is Mathieu,” van Aert said on Sunday after finishing second at Hoogerheide. “Today everybody fell far too short on Mathieu, including me.”
Of course, there are aways others who could win.
Van der Haar cannot be counted out, though the Giant-Alpecin favors faster, dry courses over late-season mud bogs. (He finished seventh in the muck at Hoogerheide last weekend.)
There is rain in the forecast in Zolder, but likely not enough to produce slick mud; instead it may just firm up the sandy course.
Belgian veteran Kevin Pauwels (Marlux-Napoleon Games) is always a threat. Last year’s World Cup champion hasn’t won a World Cup race this season, but he is ranked third in the world rankings.
There are others, including Belgians Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea), Laurens Sweeck (ERA-Murprotec), and 39-year-old Sven Nys (Crelan-AA Drink), who is racing his final world championship after a career that produced 50 World Cup races and two world titles.
But it is van der Poel and van Aert who will surely dictate the race. Barring a significant crash or mechanical, both men are expected to stand on the podium.
“For me, everything is good. I proved that I can also win in the final lap, like I did the last weeks,” van der Poel said. “That was, for me, an enormous boost, that I have the confidence again that I could win in that way. Ideally, I would like to go into the final lap with a half-minute advantage over the rest, so that you are almost certain that you will become world champion. I had that in Tabor, but with a [smaller] time advantage. If you then can win with such a small advantage, it is an unbelievable feeling in those last metres to the finish.”
At a world championship that will bid farewell to the sport’s biggest star, there is little question as to whether anyone might fill his shoes.
Instead, it seems, it’s a matter of how the victories will be dispersed.