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Cyclocross

The Wout van Aert vs Mathieu van der Poel rivalry is set to gain fresh spice Sunday, and I’m stoked

This weekend's cyclocross world championships will add fresh vigor to the duo's long rivalry ahead of cobblestone clashes in April.

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It’s all square at three rainbow jerseys apiece for Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. But likely not for much longer.

Van Aert and van der Poel are set to turn a new page on their much-hyped and long-loved rivalry Sunday as they lock horns at the cyclocross world championships in Ostende. Whether one of the dominant duo wins or we see an against-the-odds surprise victory from the pack of contenders behind them, we’re likely to see some cagey racing, some huge haymakers, and a bit of beef between the sport’s biggest frienemies.

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And I cannot wait.

Why? Because, let’s face it, an even more tense and taut rivalry between two of the world’s most exciting riders as they head toward a road season highlighted by cobblestone clashes is a very good thing.

I’m not calling for foul play or shoddy sportsmanship. What I do hope for is a race that adds a new needle to the bitter history between two talents that have been at each others’ throats since they were junior ‘crossers.

The past six CX worlds have left van Aert and van der Poel with three rainbow jerseys each, and with that a sense of harmony.

The most likely result Sunday? That one of WvA and MvdP takes a fourth rainbow jersey, tipping the title count to four-three. And that’s going to sting.

After a winter of near-neck-and-neck ‘cross racing and a 2020 road season that saw them come off more-or-less even-stevens in direct clashes, one of Wout and Mathieu are going to have a score to settle in this spring’s classics after seeing the rainbow jersey count tipped against them in Ostende.

And in the long-odds chance that one of the chasing pack of Tom Pidcock and Co. takes an unlikely victory this weekend, van der Poel and van Aert will be racing against each other as much as any of the rest of the field as they look to go one-up on their foe. Cue the potential for more beef and bristling tension.

Best of frenemies: Van Aert and van der Poel have been almost inseparable through the ‘cross season. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Everyone loves a good rivalry, and cycling fans haven’t had a great one since the classics clashes between Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara some 10 years ago. Though Wout and Mathieu have been on the boil since the junior ‘cross worlds in 2012, the transition of the rivalry onto the road last year added a huge pile of spice to the bubbling stew the pair has been concocting.

The duo’s long history has rendered them the best of frienemies, each of them courteously respectful of each other off the bike but cagily mindful of their counterpart on the bike. That tension spilled out into the pressroom last fall after the pair marked each other into stalemate at Gent-Wevelgem, a simmering wheel-sucking that opened the door for Mads Pedersen to score a stunning victory.

In the aftermath, Wout and Mathieu bickered over tactics and poked putdowns at one another via the safety of assorted interviews.

“He wanted me to lose rather than win himself,” wailed Wout.

“It’s a bit low to say I’m riding to make him lose, while always driving to win a race,” muttered Mathieu.

One week later, they were at it again, clinging to one another’s wheel for a full 243 kilometers of the Tour of Flanders, only to see the result decided by the strength of a bike throw in what was one of the closest races of the year.

After the dust has settled and the medals been claimed at the Ostende worlds Sunday, should schedules stay the same and COVID not cause chaos, the two will next bump shoulders on the startline of De Ronde, April 4, with the next showdown just one week later on the pavé of Paris-Roubaix.

The unsettling of the world championship score Sunday will bring a whole new heap of hype to the cobblestones this April, and add a twist of vigor into the most riveting rivalry the sport has seen in a decade. I can’t wait.