The 25-year-old pulled away from the field in the opening minute of the race in Dubendorf and the pack never saw him again as he soloed away to his third world title.
“It was one of my big goals this season,” van der Poel said. “I think that I’ve had one of the best days of my season already and I’m really happy that it worked out.”
“When I managed to get away in the first lap and get a gap immediately I think it gave me wings, and I think I rode the perfect race.”
Behind van der Poel, 20-year-old Brit Tom Pidcock took second having ridden away from a group of Belgian riders. World Cup champion Toon Aerts (Belgium) took third.
Van der Poel kicked clear of the bunch less than a minute into the race, and from there on, there seemed no question that he would go on to defend his rainbow jersey. Behind him, Pidcock dueled with Belgians Wout van Aert, Toon Aerts, Laurens Sweeck, Michael Vanthourenhout, and long-time nemesis Eli Iserbyt in the opening laps.
Pidcock pulled away from the Belgians as he tussled with Iserbyt at the front of the chase group. Iserbyt, out of his comfort zone in the heavy, boggy conditions, seemed to blow as he attempted to react to the move, and soon fell off the pace.
Aerts chased Pidcock through the rest of the race, keeping him pegged at around 10 seconds, but never making an inroad into the gap. The Brit kept control as he rode to an impressive second place, having won the U23 world title last year.
Though the women’s race had benefited from dry, hard conditions on Saturday, the men had to contend with thick boggy mud after rain fell overnight and through the morning Sunday. After the men’s junior and women’s U23 events earlier that day, the ruts running through descents were deep and the grassy straightaways took some effort to get through.
Though van der Poel took his win by a dominant margin of 1:20, he admitted it was far from easy.
“I expected it to break up, the course was really tough, I think it’s one of the hardest races I’ve ever done,” he said. “Especially those last laps, the bridges were almost too hard to get up.”
Van der Poel had a gap of over one minute by half-way through the race, but left nothing to chance as he pushed hard all the way to the line in his rainbow jersey defense. He only eased off in final straight as he cruised across the line before presenting his bike to the crowd.
“It was a very honest race, I think the strongest riders were at the front almost immediately and I think that’s a good thing at the world championships,” he said.
Having only returned to racing in December after his Tour de France crash, van Aert rode to fourth place, a positive sign ahead of his season on the road.
Only 23 riders finished the race as the mud deepened and time gaps expanded with every lap. Among the finishers were Americans Stephen Hyde and Curis White, who took 16th and 18th respectively.
What next for van der Poel? A shot at the monuments with planned starts at Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix, before switching back to the fat tires in preparation for the Olympic mountain bike race. There seems to be no limits to what he could do in 2020.