From the Mag
Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

VeloNews Awards 2018: Van Aert and van der Poel, most versatile riders

They have long been cyclocross rivals, but van Aert and van der Poel are also evenly matched as cycling's most versatile riders.

Thirty years ago, Bo Jackson became one of the greatest athletes of all time by earning All-Star status in Major League Baseball and the National Football League. To this day, anyone who pursues multiple sports simultaneously brings to mind the iconic Jackson and his catchy “Bo Knows” marketing campaign.

Though cyclocross, road racing, and mountain biking aren’t as different as baseball is to football, each cycling discipline demands a unique set of skillsets, both physiological and technical. For the past few years, two young athletes, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, have turned heads with their otherworldly talent in a wide range of races. Their knack for transitioning back and forth between disciplines — in the case of van der Poel, sometimes on consecutive weekends — and winning on any terrain is uncanny. Bo Jackson would be proud.

In 2018, each rider added to the hype, with result after result, from one race to the next. Is there anything they don’t know how to do?

Van Aert ended his 2017-18 ’cross season early — after capturing his third world title in succession — to make a wholehearted push into the spring classics on the road. It didn’t take long for him to solidify his place as a potential future Lion of Flanders. On a grueling, miserable day in early March, van Aert finished third at Strade Bianche, even putting his cyclocross skills to the test on the finishing climb when his legs cramped and he was forced to dismount. Weeks later, van Aert made Belgium proud, climbing to a respectable ninth place in his Tour of Flanders debut. Several other road results across the season, including the overall at the Tour of Denmark, confirmed his future may lie squarely on the road.

For now, though, van Aert still loves his ’cross. Despite major team, contract, and sponsorship woes this September, Van Aert picked up where he left off, scoring two podium finishes in the early World Cup races in Wisconsin and Iowa.

And then there’s van der Poel. Flashier, more willing to get ragged, and perhaps more in love with the dirt than his Belgian counterpart, the 23-year-old Dutchman had one of the most dominant cyclocross seasons in history in 2017-18. He took the overall titles in the World Cup, Superprestige, and DVV series, won the Dutch and European championships, and had van Aert’s number at nearly every race from start to finish — with one glaring exception. At the world championships, van der Poel was a shadow of his normal self. He finished third and van Aert took gold.

Nonetheless, van der Poel forged ahead into the road and mountain bike seasons with all the confidence of a seasoned veteran. While his Continental team wasn’t invited to many of the big races, van der Poel proved he could race among the best of the WorldTour, winning the Dutch road championships and taking second place at the European championships, just ahead of van Aert.

Meanwhile, he found a way to sneak off to the entire MTB World Cup series, scoring three third-place finishes on his way to second place overall behind the great Nino Schurter. He ended his season with a third place at MTB worlds. Not bad for someone who is literally still a kid.

So, the inevitable question: which man is truly cycling’s Bo Jackson?

Well, van der Poel knows ’cross. Van der Poel knows road. Van der Poel knows MTB.

And van Aert knows how to win ’cross worlds. Van Aert knows the spring classics.

We give up. Perhaps our sport has room for two Bo Jacksons.