Cyclocross

Wout van Aert braced for resumption of long cyclocross rivalry with Mathieu van der Poel

Cross-discipline duo have been fierce rivals for longer in cyclocross than they have been on the road. With a narrow defeat at Tour of Flanders fresh in the memory, Van Aert is braced for more as 'cross season kicks off.

Wout van Aert closed out his stellar road season with a close second place to Mathieu van der Poel at the Tour of Flanders last month. Just a few weeks later, the Belgian is braced to resume his rivalry with his long-time foil in the mud and grit of cyclocross season.

Provisional race schedules reported by Wielerflits suggest the pair of cross-discipline stars will both start their ‘cross seasons in the coming weeks, with their first head-to-head clash coming on New Year’s Day at the X2O Trophy round in Baal, Belgium.

Van Aert has a score to settle after losing out in downtown Oudenaarde this October but knows he has an uphill battle in silencing his nagging frustration at such a narrow defeat.

“I was beaten by someone who was better than me in the worlds [i.e., Julian Alaphilippe and Filippo Ganna] but in the Tour of Flanders, it was still very close,” Van Aert told Red Bull this weekend. “If I have to choose a race that I don’t like to look back on, then it’s the Tour of Flanders because the win was so close.”

Van Aert is looking to put the “what ifs” to bed when he resumes his long rivalry with van der Poel in this winter’s cross season.

“I’m definitely looking forward to taking on Mathieu in the mud,” van Aert said. “I don’t think it is any easier for me in cyclocross, everyone also knows Mathieu’s ability on the bike. Even if I have very good legs it’s difficult to get close to him, but that doesn’t mean that I’ll give up trying.”

Van der Poel pipped Van Aert in the sprint finish at the Tour of Flanders in October. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Van der Poel and Van Aert’s first major ‘cross face-off was the 2015 world championships, where van der Poel edged out the Belgian. Since the Tabor race five years ago, the pair has come out evens, with three rainbow jerseys apiece. Next January’s world championships in Ostend, Belgium, may offer one of them the opportunity to make it four – three in their favor.

Though the years-long rivalry went on a hiatus through the start of last season as Van Aert raced himself back to form as he recovered from injuries sustained at the Tour de France, he was back in shape to go head-to-head with van der Poel at the season-closing world championships in Denmark, where the Dutchman took the honors.

This year, Van Aert is looking to carry forward his form from a bumper season on the road. The 26-year-old plans to jump into ‘cross season as soon as possible as he gambles some freshness for maintaining form and rediscovering his ‘cross legs.

“This year I’ve come out of the road season very well and there is really nothing to indicate that it would go less in the field,” he said. “I hope to get back to my old level and be at my best in January, especially at the World Championships, so I can compete again with Mathieu and the other riders.”

“I will certainly not compete in my best condition [in the first races] … those first crosses are partly still part of my preparation. That’s the best training, to get in cold and hopefully not get beaten.”

Van Aert described van der Poel as “the benchmark in cyclocross,” a title fitting for the man who beat him to the gold medal in a fast, dry race at the Bogense world championships last winter. Like at the Tour of Flanders, van der Poel had the edge on Van Aert in Denmark in February.

Van Aert admitted that van der Poel is possibly an even tougher rival in the mud than he is on the tarmac, and plotting ways to defeat him has become something of a preoccupation. The week before Flanders, the pair had marked themselves into a stalemate at Gent-Wevelgem, allowing Mads Pedersen to steal the victory from under their noses. For Van Aert, that simmering cold war is even tenser through the winter of cyclocross.

“In cyclocross, where we stand out, I think more about Mathieu during the week, about how I can beat him, and how I can adapt my training to his strongest qualities,” Van Aert told Sport / Football Magazine earlier this month. “But I don’t think we train and race on the road to beat each other – we train to be able to win. But in order to win certain races, we simply have to beat each other.”

Both riders have four races in their ‘cross calendars ahead of the January 1 showdown in Baal. Van Aert knows he has a battle on his hands, but if this road season proved anything, it’s that the Belgian star can spring more than a few surprises.

2020-21 cyclocross schedule:

Mathieu van der Poel
December 12 – X2O Trofee, Antwerp
December 20 – World Cup, Namur
December 23 – X2O Trofee, Herentals
December 30 – Ethias Cross, Bredene
January 1 – X2O Trophy, Baal
January 9 – Dutch Championships, Zaltbommel
January 23 – X2O Trofee, Hamme
January 31 – World Championships, Ostend

Wout Van Aert
November 28 – X2O Trofee, Kortrijk
November 29 – World Cup, Tabor
December 6 – Superprestige, Boom
December 23 – X2O Trofee, Herentals
January 1 – X2O Trofee, Baal
January 9 – Belgian Championships, Meulebeke
January 23 – X2O Trofee, Hamme
January 31 – World Championships, Ostend

Wielerflits provided dates and locations for the listed cyclocross events for each rider.