It wasn’t supposed to go this way.
A homecrowd of 25,700 baffled spectators looked on in almost eerie silence as cyclocross’ most talented rider came completely unraveled just one lap into the 2018 UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Valkenburg, The Netherlands, on February 4th.
Fans had hoped for a duel, but expected another solo victory. And while they were indeed treated to a shut-out solo performance, it wasn’t at the hand of top favorite Mathieu van der Poel (The Netherlands).
Instead, the Dutch phenom cracked and barely hung in for bronze while Belgian Wout van Aert (Belgium) made it an historic triple, winning his third elite world championships in a row.
Van Aert’s compatriot Michael Vanthourenhout took home the silver.
“I can’t believe that the race went like this. I didn’t expect it,” said Van Aert in the post-race interview. “I expected a big battle but this was a nice cross.”
How the race was won
“Unexpected” was the word of the day. First, it was the snow that was coming down steadily as the elite men rode their practice laps, scouting out the treacherous course that had wreaked havoc all weekend.
Bogged down with thick mud, the course had forced riders in all previous events to spend a significant amount of the race off the bike, as they scooted, ran and plowed on.
As the men lined up for the pinnacle event of the championship weekend, the snow stopped but the course was terribly slippery.
All eyes were on Dutch rider Mathieu van der Poel, who with 27 victories on his palmares this season alone was the absolute top favorite. With technical skills and 5-minute power unmatchable by his competitors, Van der Poel spent most of the season riding away from the field, soloing to one finish line after the other, including World Cups and the Dutch and European Championships. After last year’s devastating World Championships in Luxembourg — where multiple flat tires robbed him from the rainbow jersey — Van der Poel was expected to do the same here. Barring any mechanicals, flat tyres or other misfortune, Van der Poel was considered a shoe-in for the win.
But lining up next to him in the front row was his biggest rival, Belgian Wout van Aert. The defending back-to-back world champion spent most of his season chasing the Dutchman and came in second 14 times this season. While he tailored his schedule around being in peak fitness for this race, he lined up relaxed and with little pressure.
“Mathieu is the man of the season, and I have nothing to lose today,” Van Aert had said ahead of the race.
Still, the fans were hoping for another Belgium versus The Netherlands showdown and looked to Van Aert to take on the Dutch phenom.
Despite the muddy conditions, the field took off with mighty speed and it was Lars van der Haar (The Netherlands) who took to the front first, leading the pack around the bend and down the treacherous steep descent.
But, as in the previous events, gaps formed almost immediately and the field scattered. It took only a few turns before a familiar sight formed at the front: Van der Poel setting the pace with four Belgians on his wheel.
Just three minutes into the race, Van der Poel blew his first gap and viewers assumed we were in for another Van der Poel solo. But Van Aert quickly made contact again, even passing the Dutchman to be in control of his own lines.
Neck-and-neck the duo entered lap two with Van Aert setting the pace. Belgians Michael Vanthourenhout and Toon Aerts rode in third place a little behind.
Van Aert looked very comfortable taking the lead while Van der Poel seemed happy to let him. Was he biding his time? Trying to play it smart?
No, we were witnessing something else entirely. The “man of the season” was coming undone. Unraveling like a ball of yarn, it started with a slip here, a fumble there but then the legs went. While Van Aert was making the most of this sign of weakness and steadily gapped his rival, Van der Poel looked positively cooked and was unable to match Van Aerts acceleration.
The Belgian meanwhile took off, fumbling through the pit as he wanted, needed, to put as much time between himself and the Dutchman.
Stunned, we watched Van Aert enter lap three with a nearly 30-second gap on Van der Poel who was now getting caught by Vanthourenhout.
Van der Poel looked completely undone and even racing for second became a tremendous undertaking for him.
With four out of seven laps completed and Van Aert leading by over a minute, the drive had left Van der Poel. The chase for gold had stopped and Vanthourenhout took several digs to drop Van der Poel. Van der Poel meanwhile, already processing his loss, had to muster up any remaining drive to hang in for podium.
“The crowd drove me today,” Van der Poel admitted the Belgian media post-race. “I couldn’t let the Belgians get away with a full Belgian podium in front of my home crowd.”
And so, Van Aert soloed on, mastering the course that had been so difficult to manoeuvre for everyone else. A stumble or two were unavoidable but with nearly three minutes on the second place contenders, the race was decided halfway through. Still, Van Aert never let up and it wasn’t until he reached the finishing straight that he sat up.
Coming across the finish, Van Aert held up three fingers, signifying his third consecutive world championship title.
“It’s pretty historical to do that in cyclocross,” Van Aert said post race. “The names of those who did it before me are icons of the sport so it means a lot to come into this select group of people. I worked really hard for this so now I’m going to enjoy it.”
Two and a half minutes later, an ecstatic Vanthourenhout came in for silver while a dumbfounded Van der Poel crossed the line in third with barely a reaction.
Unlike the devastation and tears of 2017, by the time Van der Poel met media this time around, he seemed to have spent the last few laps of the race processing and coming to terms with his loss on Sunday.
“What went wrong? I can’t really pin-point one specific thing. It was an unusual course but I can’t pin it on that. With my level I should be able to handle anything but that just wasn’t the case today,” Van der Poel said.
“I was beaten worthily, and when that happens, I can live with that.”
The Belgians were victorious in the elite women’s race as well, where Sanne Cant successfully defended her title after an exciting duel with American Katie Compton.
Come back for a gallery from the weekend’s events early next week.