It was the showdown cycling fans have been waiting for: Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) going mano a mano in a monument. And at the end, it was van der Poel who took the win in a photo finish sprint.
Afterwards, van Aert was congratulatory, if also disappointed. The Belgian rider had positioned himself behind his longterm Dutch rival in the final kilometer, and the pair slowed to nearly a crawl as the chase group thundered up behind.
At just inside 200 meters to go, van Aert jumped, and van der Poel reacted immediately with his own sprint.
“I was sprinting maybe too much in the wind,” van Aert said. “At the end of the sprint, it’s just a matter of the strongest, and that was Mathieu. It was only a small difference, but still he was stronger.”
The sprint was so close that television cameras had to flash up the slow motion of the two riders crossing the line. In the slowed version, van der Poel’s wheel crossed the line just a few centimeters ahead of van Aert’s wheel.
The final push to the line etched the latest chapter into the yearslong rivalry between the two riders. The men grew up racing cyclocross against each other in the Belgian and Dutch cyclocross leagues. As elite riders, they then battled in the elite cyclocross ranks, both grabbing world championship and World Cup wins.
Van Aert made the switch to road cycling first, and in 2020 enjoyed a series of successes. He won Strade Bianche, Milano-Sanremo, one stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné, and then two stages of the Tour de France.
“I am very happy with that,” van Aert said of his 2020 season. “But I like more to win, so now I am of course disappointed.”
Alaphilippe crashes out of the winning move he started
The thrilling finale came after a dramatic final 50 kilometers, which saw current world champion Julian Alaphilippe draw out van Aert and van der Poel with a series of attacks.
After attacking first on the Koppenberg, Alaphilippe (Deceunin–Quick-Step) attacked again on the Steenbeekdries, with van der Poel jumping on the wheel.
Van Aert was caught in the chase group before attacking to bridge up to the two.
“I saw Mathieu and Alaphilippe were in front, so I couldn’t hesitate,” van Aert said. “I had to get back on the Taaienberg. I was good enough to do that, and from then on, the three strongest of the race were in front.”
Just a few moments later the race was upended when Alaphilippe struck a race motorcycle and crashed. The impact occurred at 35km to go, and it knocked the Frenchman out of the race entirely.
“Unfortunately Julian crashed, but it was the hardest part in the race where we made the difference,” van Aert said.
Van Aert said that the dynamics of the race potentially coerced the race motorcycles to ride in back of the trio. A momentary hesitation on the part of Alaphilippe could have led to the crash, he said.
“There were a few motos that wanted to go behind us because our gap was growing,” van Aert said. “I wanted to take profit as much as possible to go behind the moto, and I think maybe Julian was not concentrating or something.”
Like man fans back home watching the race on television, van Aert lamented the crash. What could have happened in the three strong riders came to the finish together will never be known.
“It’s a pity that he hit the moto and he crashed quite hard I think, van Aert said. “I hope he’s okay.”