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The finale of the weekend’s Tour of Flanders served up exactly the spectacle that road cycling fans have been anticipating for years: Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert locked in head-to-head battle for one of the sport’s most prestigious wins. The two have matured into some of the most dynamic, exciting riders of their generation, sharing similar strengths and a similar sporting background.
Separated by just a few months in age – Wout van Aert is the older – the duo have had a long rivalry stretching back to the junior ranks, trading world cyclocross championships throughout their teens and early 20s.
In the past two seasons, they have both spent more time on the road, with Van Aert signing a WorldTour contract with Jumbo-Visma and Van der Poel having the Alpecin-Fenix team constructed around him. Van Aert is the more prolific road racer by virtue of his team’s higher status – he has starts and stage wins at both of the last two Tours de France – while Van der Poel has been almost untouchable on the cyclocross circuit since Van Aert ramped up his road calendar. Van der Poel has another string to his bow, too – he’s an accomplished mountain biker, and one of the favourites for next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
On the road, it’s been in the fabled cobbled classics that a match-up between Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert has been most eagerly anticipated. However, until last weekend, that true one-on-one battle was yet to present itself. For a range of reasons – crashes, mechanicals, general misfortune – the anticipated duels at last year’s Spring Classics never really eventuated.
Head-to-head on the road, they have raced against each other on just 23 occasions since 2014; Van der Poel has come out on top on 15 occasions (five wins), and Van Aert has bested his Dutch rival on eight occasions (with four wins). They each have one Monument to their credit – Tour of Flanders for Van der Poel and Milan-San Remo for Van Aert, both this year – but Van Aert has had the slightly more impressive season, courtesy of a phenomenal Tour de France where he won two stages and was a superstar domestique.
In cyclocross, there’s a deeper history stretching back almost a decade, with more than 150 races against each other. Mathieu van der Poel won the junior world championship in 2012, with Van Aert second. In 2014, Van Aert won the U23 world title, with Van der Poel finishing third. In 2015, they both stepped up to elite level, although they were still eligible to race U23 again; Van der Poel claimed his first elite world championship, with Van Aert second. The Belgian won the next three consecutive years, before Van der Poel reclaimed the mantle in 2019 and 2020. They currently have three elite world championships apiece, although just as Van Aert is slightly the more fancied on the road, Van der Poel is now the more dominant racer off it.
Although the two have had a sometimes fractious relationship over the years – including a rather public spat over Van der Poel’s tactics at Gent-Wevelgem a week ago – there’s a mutual respect and appreciation. After a photo-finish sprint to conclude Tour of Flanders, the duo embraced as they rolled to a stop. It was a moment with #allthefeels.
COVID-19 robbed cycling of an eagerly awaited showdown between the two on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix this year, but it seems likely that Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert’s thrilling rivalry will continue for many years to come. For fans of the sport worldwide, that’s a scintillating prospect.
2011: Puberty is a wild ride.
2012: Van Aert leads Van der Poel at the Junior World Championships. By race end, the order would be reversed.
“Ah, the taste of success,” thought a gangly teen Mathieu van der Poel as he chomped down on his first ever world champion’s medal, 2012. Wout van Aert in second; Quentin Jauregiu in third.
2013: Just a coupla Kool Boyz with rim brakes in 2013.
2013: At the under 23 edition of the Koppenbergcross in 2013, the rivals duked it out on some familiar terrain.
2015: Van Aert leads Van der Poel through the slurry of Loenhout. You can almost taste the mud, five years later.
2016: Van der Poel and Van Aert pictured during the Cyclocross of Gieten. Who’s in front? Who’s behind? Who knows, because the perspective is trippy as hell.
2016: A duel for first place on a rudely steep hill at the CX Superprestige Spa-Francorchamps, 2016.
2016: As cyclocross racers, Van der Poel has the greater technical ability, while Van Aert is the better runner. Conveniently for this caption, here is a picture of them tackling the same problem with different approaches at Gieten, 2016.
2016: 2 Fast 2 Furious, Niels Albertcross Drift.
2017: The 2017 World Championships looked set to be one for the ages, but Van der Poel’s luck ran out.
2017: After suffering four punctures, Van der Poel called his silver medal at the 2017 world cyclocross championship the “biggest disappointment” of his young career.
2017: Late in the season, Van Aert leads Van der Poel at Lille.
2017: “Mate, your bouquet is all stem.”
2017: When you win Dwars Door Het Hageland, you get a beer the size of your head, while your rivals are humiliated with conventional drink portions.
2017: Van der Poel foreshadows his penchant for white bibs at the Zolder World Cup.
2018: At the 2018 European Championships in Glasgow, Matteo Trentin of Italy came through with the goods (and a stellar victory salute) ahead of Van der Poel and Van Aert.
2018: Defending champion Van Aert backing it up at the 2018 world CX championships.
2018: Snakes and ladders for the European champ, Van der Poel, and the world champ, Van Aert, at Zonhoven.
2019: Van Aert leads Van der Poel through the slop of the Otegem course.
2019: After a falling out with his team, Van Aert rode part of the season as a privateer. That meant a black skinsuit with a motley collection of sponsor logos, and the kind of sports watch that Julian Alaphilippe wouldn’t be seen dead in.
2019: At the World Championships, Mathieu van der Poel came in as the favourite after an utterly dominant season.
2019: He took a convincing victory ahead of his long-time rival, and won again in 2020 (Van Aert finished fourth that time).