Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert: A head-to-head history

by Iain Treloar


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.

Screenshot: ProCyclingStats.com

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.

The head-to-head cyclocross history between the two stretches back to the 2011-12 season, with Van der Poel coming out on top more than twice as often as his perennial rival. That gap has increased over the past two seasons. Screenshot: cyclocross24.com

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.

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