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The outcome of the 2017 elite men’s world cyclocross championship, held Sunday in Bieles, Luxembourg, will almost certainly be the climactic endpoint to one of three equally unconventional storylines.
First: Young former world champion misses first month of season returning from knee surgery, battles with current young world champion during heart of season, has scary race-ending crash a month before worlds, and wins to reclaim rainbow jersey.
Second: Current world champion, also young, dominates early season, finds himself on losing end of several epic battles with young former world champion, overcomes late-season knee injury, and defends rainbow jersey.
Third: Slightly less-young rider misses first half of season due to hamstring injury, slowly claws his way back to top, profits from late-season breakdown of two former world champions, and peaks at perfect moment to take first world title of his career.
While anything can happen in a cyclocross race, there is a very good chance that Sunday’s world championship will be the final chapter in one of these season-long narratives, written and performed by Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, and Lars van der Haar, respectively.
Two years ago in Tabor, Czech Republic, Dutch rider Mathieu van der Poel became, at age 19, the youngest-ever world cyclocross champion. He’d won in his first elite world championship. The son of 1996 world cyclocross champion Adri van der Poel — and the maternal grandson of Frenchman Raymond Poulidor — “MVDP” had, instantly, ushered in a new era of cyclocross racing, and become a star in the process. Age and experience were no match for raw power and a daring, acrobatic style in technical sections.
After suffering an early mechanical and a mid-race crash, Belgian Wout van Aert, who is 126 days older than van der Poel and was also in his first elite worlds, finished second. Less technically proficient than van der Poel, van Aert’s strength lies in solid starts and an ability to ride at a monstrously challenging tempo for 60 minutes.
At the 2016 worlds in Zolder, van Aert took the title in a thrilling race that saw he and van der Poel awkwardly tangled up in an off-camber uphill section midway through the race after van der Poel slid out on a tricky uphill bend. Van Aert plowed into the back of van der Poel, with the Dutch rider’s foot stuck in van Aert’s front wheel. While van der Poel never regained his momentum, van Aert went on the offensive, winning by five seconds ahead of Dutch rider Lars van der Haar. Van der Poel finished fifth, unsatisfied.
Heading into the 2016-17 season, great battles were anticipated between van der Poel, van Aert, and van der Haar, who is a few years older than his phenom rivals. A Belgian television crew is spending the season following them, along with Laurens Sweeck, 23, and Eli Iserbyt, 19, for a reality show titled “Kroonprinsen” or Crown Princes.
However injury prevented both Dutchmen from starting the season; van der Poel had knee surgery, while van der Haar had a hamstring pull. In their absence, Van Aert went on a tear, winning eight races by the end of November, including the first two World Cup events, resplendent in the rainbow stripes.
Van der Poel didn’t take long to return to the top, however, beating Van Aert in the third and fourth rounds of the World Cup; Van Aert finished second both days. It was the beginning of a trend that would unsettle the world champion.
Over the past 12 months, the two young riders have raced against one another 24 times. Van der Poel has beaten van Aert 16 times, with the Belgian finishing better on eight occasions.
Things got really interesting between November 6 and December 23, when both riders were firing on all cylinders. Eleven times van der Poel and van Aert faced each other over that seven-week period, and 10 of those 11 times, they finished first and second. Of those 10 races, van der Poel won nine of them.
Many of those races followed a pattern: Van der Poel would attack early and ride solo, leaving van Aert to chase back on, with a handful of riders in tow. The junction would be made late in the race, the two strongest riders would open up a gap, and on the last lap, van der Poel would put in a devastating dig, often in sand, that van Aert could not match.
“When they were young, van der Poel usually got the better of van Aert, and this is still showing now,” cyclocross legend Sven Nys told Sporza recently. “Mathieu has something very special, like a young Peter Sagan. They don’t make them every year.”
It’s true. Van der Poel, the 2013 junior world road champion who is linked to a road career with Team Sky, has the slight edge on van Aert. However he’s far from invincible. The tall Beobank-Corendon rider is powerful, but also prone to mistakes, as evidenced at Loenhout on December 29, when he launched over a steep and landed on his neck; he was carried off the course on a backboard, but was not seriously injured.
Due to a sore neck, Van der Poel missed the Italian round of the World Cup on January 15, heading to Spain to train instead. Van Aert soloed to victory in Italy, but would afterward complain of knee pain, forcing him to sit out last weekend’s Hoogerheide World Cup.
Van der Poel is, at times, less of a fighter than van Aert, perhaps because he hasn’t had to race from behind as often. More than once this season, whether due to mechanical issues or just having an off day, van der Poel has simply sat up and soft-pedaled to the finish. And while in and of itself that’s not cause for alarm, it happened most recently last weekend, at the Hoogerheide World Cup, where van der Poel blamed his poor performance on heavy training, but also a bad day. He finished 24th, in front of a home crowd, at a race named after his father
“It was not what I expected,” Van der Poel told Sporza. “It is true, of course, that I trained hard last week in Spain, but I had thought that I would get better today for the day. On my first attack I felt that there was nothing, and that became less and less. After a while, there was nothing more, and technically I was not good. I was on a bad day.”
Bill Schieken, who runs the website CXHairs.com, said one of the key differences between the two is “what happens when things go wrong.”
“That’s why Wout won last year. He’s methodical. He doesn’t lose concentration and can refocus. Mathieu can’t. I really think this is the second coming of Niels Albert vs. Sven Nys, with Mathieu playing the Niels role. He does shit nobody expects, and gets away with it. Wout is ‘The Terminator.'”
With van Aert out and van der Poel on an off day, the winner in Hoogerheide was van der Haar, a rider who excels on fast, fitness courses rather than in slow, sloppy races. The World Cup victory served as redemption after a frustrating first half of the season, but also as a good omen heading into the world championship.
While his season has not been anywhere as fruitful as his rivals, both van der Poel and van Aert have dealt with medical issues in the past month; van der Haar may just be peaking at the perfect moment. Though he’s never won at worlds, the Telenet–Fidea Lions rider has been on the podium three times, with a bronze in 2015. At the very least, his presence in the race, should he make the front group, will change the dynamic between van der Poel and van Aert.
A bit of controversy erupted on Twitter this week after Belgian Kevin Pauwels, followed by van der Poel, posted photos of their antidoping forms, seemingly to prove they have no Therapeutic Use Exemptions heading into the world championship. The unusual post led some to suggest that it was in reference to van Aert’s inflamed knee, and the possibility that the Belgian might be using a cortisone treatment in the week before the race.
“Quite right, I fully support! # transparency” van der Poel wrote, retweeting Pauwels’ photo of his anti-doping form. Shortly after, MVDP’s father, Adrie, replied “who follows???”
While allowed in competition with a TUE, cortisone is not allowed without authorization, and is considered a performance-enhancing drug due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
Van der Poel said that after seeing Pauwels’ tweet, he was following suit to send out a message to anyone that might suspect his time away in Spain.
“Kevin was the first. I thought that was good of him,” van der Poel said. “I did it mostly because I did not race the World Cup in Italy and spent two weeks training in Spain. Then people soon start to think anything — that I did that, for example, to use cortisone. This was the ideal way to show that this is not so.”
Van Aert didn’t post his anti-doping form; he did not immediately comment. His Vérandas Willems–Crelan team manager, and his coach, did.
“The story is simple,” team manager Nick Nuyens told Het Niuewsblad. “Wout is faced with a problem and has a reputable doctor. We will not put somebody’s reputation at stake. The doctor has prescribed a treatment; a TUE is not included. To my knowledge Wout has not recently had any control outside of competition. I do wonder what Mathieu and Kevin want to achieve in this. Is this a way to destabilize Wout?”
Van Aert’s coach, former world champion Niels Albert, said neither the knee pain nor the TUE innuendo would crack the Belgian’s resolve.
“Mentally, Wout can go through a wall,” Albert told Sporza. “And when that adrenaline is pumping through his body on Sunday, he will be able to suppress the pain. After a week of rest, the injury has been strongly decreased, but the problem is not completely clear yet,” Albert said. “But until worlds, he may have to clench his teeth.”
As for the dynamic between the two young champions, van Aert told CyclingTips at the outset of the season that he and van der Poel are friendly, if not friends.
“It’s good,” he said of their relationship. “He’s a very friendly guy. When we are outside of the race, we can talk. Of course, we are each other’s biggest rival, so we’re not going to train with each other. We don’t text with each other a lot. It’s not because we don’t like each other, but we need to be very aggressive in the race, so outside of the race, it’s difficult to be very close.”
“The best rider will win”
So what’s it going to be on Sunday? Will we see a climactic showdown? Will van der Poel stamp his authority and return to the rainbow stripes? Will van Aert overcome his knee injury and defend his title? Could van der Haar put together the best day of his season when it matters most?
The course, held at Bel-Val High School, has been described as very difficult, with off-camber sections, hills, and a long staircase, all made more difficult by snow that is expected to melt, and freeze.
“For a course like this, you could use a motocross bike,” Nys told HLN. “It is clear that it will not be a tactical race. The best rider will win, period.”
The safest bet is on van der Poel, though his performance at Hoogerheide was far from confidence inspiring. Van Aert is a question mark, but will almost certainly be contending for the win. Van der Haar is less likely to win, but as a rider who has medaled three times at the last four world championships, he should not be counted out.
Whoever wins, the victory will become the punctuation mark at the end of a dramatic 2016-17 cyclocross season. The following day, while the mud is still frozen in Bieles, the next chapter will begin, with one man wearing rainbow stripes.