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Analysis: Why Van Aert and van der Poel will race U23 at worlds

Dan Seaton breaks down the reasons why these two cyclocross stars will compete in the U23 race at the world championships next month

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BRUSSELS (VN) — For the past month, international cyclocross has been dominated by two of the youngest men in the sport. Since the beginning of December, Mathieu van der Poel, 19, and Wout Van Aert — who is just six months older — have combined for nine victories in elite races. Their dominance has been so complete, in fact, that one of the pair has won all but two of the 11 races in which either or both started. Neither has finished worse than fourth in the same period.

Van Aert (Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace), the reigning under-23 world champion, has posted wins in non-series races in Mol and Bredene, and bpost Bank Trofee races in Essen, Loenhout, and Baal. Van Aert leads the bpost Bank series overall by a whopping six minutes ahead of runner-up Kevin Pauwels. Van der Poel (BKCP-Powerplus), meanwhile, took an impressive win in the nighttime Superprestige race in Diegem, and posted wins in three non-series races, in Leuven, Sint-Niklaas, and Antwerp.

And on Sunday, both men will vie for their respective national titles among the elites, Van Aert in Belgium and van der Poel in the Netherlands.

“In Belgium when you [have a pro contract] you have to do the national championships with the elites, and I think I have a chance there,” Van Aert told VeloNews after posting his latest win at the GP Sven Nys in Baal on New Year’s Day. “I hope I can do something and be in the front and can fight for the victory.”

Van Aert will likely do battle with Kevin Pauwels and Tom Meeusen in Erpe-Mere, Belgium, in a race many expect will be a muddy showdown not unlike the Loenhout race he dominated a week ago. Pauwels, perhaps the biggest threat to Van Aert’s quest for the red, black, and yellow Belgian champion’s jersey, told VeloNews on Sunday he expected the battle for the national title to be more difficult than even the world championship race, thanks largely to Van Aert’s presence on the start list.

Van der Poel, meanwhile, will line up against countrymen Lars van der Haar and Corné van Kessel on Sunday in Veldhoven, Netherlands. Although not obligated to race among the elites, van der Poel told the Dutch website he was sure he could win a U23 championship, but would have little opportunity to show off the winner’s jersey, since he plans only a single U23 race in the closing weeks of the season.

“But what if I won the red-white-and-blue among the pros,” he said. “That would be very difficult, but I could show off the jersey frequently. So I’ll try for that, rather than for the national tri-color [jersey] of the under-23 category.”

But despite the fact that both riders might finish Sunday’s races in national champion’s stripes, neither looks likely to vie for the rainbow-striped jersey of the elite world champion in Tabor, Czech Republic, at the end of the month.

Last week, VeloNews asked Van Aert why he would not try for cyclocross’ most important prize.

“It’s a question that’s frequently asked to me,” said Van Aert. “For this year I will ride under-23. I think I have to keep goals for the next seasons. It’s not only this season, but a few more seasons to come. I hope I can make a nice battle with Mathieu for the under-23 title, and also Laurens [Sweeck] and Michael Vanthourenhout, who are very strong. So that will be an interesting race.”

In an interview with the Belgian television and radio outlet Sporza, a day after talking to VeloNews, Van Aert left room for a tiny bit of doubt about his plans, even as he said neither he, his Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace team management, nor the Belgian national team coach have plans for him to race an an elite. “I don’t know if I’ll have doubts about the world championships,” he said. “My opinion is that I’ll start as an espoir. I could conceivably rethink that after the Belgian championships and a discussion with my entourage.”

Goals and aspirations aside, however, there is a more pragmatic reason for these young riders to stay in-category in Tabor as well. Both have raced clever schedules that balance elite and U23 competition this season, a decision that has probably contributed to the long-term success of the pair even as many other elite riders have faded, apparently burned out after four months of high-level racing. Moving to the elite category at worlds is possible, but it’s a one-way trip. Make the move and the door to return to U23 racing, something both riders retain eligibility for next season, is closed forever.

UCI rules dictate that all U23-eligible riders race in their category at the world championships. Waivers are allowed, an option Lars van der Haar exercised in 2013 at age 21 after winning a U23 world title in Koksijde, Belgium in 2012. Van der Haar went on to win a bronze medal in the elite championship race in Louisville, Kentucky that year, and the elite World Cup series overall the following season.

Either Van Aert or van der Poel could file a petition for such an exception if they do so before the final World Cup stop in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, on January 25. UCI off-road manager Peter Van den Abeele told Belgian website such a request would all but certain to be approved, but added a critical caveat. “From that moment [he] would be considered an elite rider,” said Van den Abeele. “The most important consequence: he would definitively give up his under-23 status.”

Both Van Aert and van der Poel may soon be elite national champions, but with both young men indicating to the press they do not plan to give up on U23 racing — at least, not this year — American cyclocross fans would be wise to plan to wake up early on February 1. The U23 race, slated for 5 a.m. EST for American viewers, may prove to be the most memorable battle of the entire weekend.