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Mathieu van der Poel on rivalry with Wout van Aert: ‘It’s getting bigger than the sport itself’

Clashes with Van Aert set to continue as Dutch cyclocross master begins inevitable pivot toward road racing.

The future for Mathieu van der Poel includes more road, less ‘cross, and a continued rivalry with Wout van Aert.

Van Aert and van der Poel’s rivalry dominates headlines, captivates fans, and keeps the cross-discipline duo’s exponential rise pointing upward. And the good news for all of us is that it’s here to stay.

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“It’s really important that I have someone pushing my limits, and I do the same with him as well – we make each other stronger,” van der Poel said the morning after beating the Belgian to a fourth ‘cross world title Sunday. “I think we’ve had some really good battles in the past, and it starts to be a story of its own, and you see that it’s getting bigger than the sport itself. It’s pretty cool to have someone like him, and it also benefits me.”

Van Aert saw his jersey challenge deflate with a slow-punctured flat tire in Ostende, robbing the race of the battle royale that many had hoped for. Nonetheless, the two multi-discipline maestros will be back at each other’s heels before too long, starting from the spring classics and stretching through a series of road events stretching up to the Tour de France.

Van der Poel said that Van Aert’s exploits through 2020 – a season that saw him winning time trials, sprints, and monuments while also detonating mountain stages at the Tour – keeps him motivated to push for more as he begins to pivot his priorities to road racing.

“If you saw Van Aert riding the Tour de France, no one expected him to be so strong going uphill and so he already pushed his limits again there,” van der Poel said. “So [my limits are] a thing we don’t really know, but it’s nice if we can discover some new strengths along the way.”

Best of frienemies: Van Aert and van der Poel at Ostende. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

With ambitions stretching from grand tours to mountain bike medals, van der Poel indicated that cyclocross was becoming increasingly pushed to the bottom of the to-do list. Victory in Ostende marked his third-straight world title and the fourth of his career, topping the record of fellow crossover riders van Aert and Zdenek Štybar.

With four rainbow jerseys now in his wardrobe, cyclocross has boiled down to the ruthless harvesting of world titles for van der Poel, with races along the way merely serving as a stepping stone.

“I don’t think I have anything to prove anymore in cyclocross, except for winning the worlds, and that’s how I went into the season,” he said. “I will keep coming back to cyclocross as long as possible because it’s fun, and it breaks the long winter a little bit while road riders are training for hours and hours. But it’s getting less and less important, the cyclocross season, for me.”

Van der Poel started this season’s winter of ‘cross late and ran a short but selective program, all with a view to taking his fourth title. The stripped-back schedule afforded him time to rest after a busy road season but provided just enough competition to hit worlds form – all while saving his matches for the upcoming road season. It’s a template he plans to copy and paste into 2022.

“The way I’ve done it this season was perfect for me,” he said. “I think I will try and do it like this in the upcoming years – to do just 10 or 15 cyclocross races during the winter to keep the feeling and to keep the points to be at the front of the world championships.”

Training for the Tour on the trails

Van der Poel sees his Tour de France debut as a distraction rather than an opportunity. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

While van Aert will be in full road mode as he builds for the Tour de France via a series of altitude camps and road races this summer, van der Poel will be training for his grand tour debut in the thin air and rocky tracks of Livigno.

The Dutchman will be making his Tour de France debut this July, but for him, the roads of France are merely a distraction ahead of the mountain bike race at the Tokyo Olympics.

“I think I will prepare myself on a mountain bike for the Tour de France. I will not be 100 percent,” he said. “Like I said, for me the Olympics are more important. And already when I won the Dutch road national championships in Hoogerheide a few years ago, I also almost rode my mountain bike every day in Livigno.”

Van der Poel indicated last year that duty rather than desire put him on the start-sheet for the Tour de France this summer. The Dutchman’s intent to prepare for his debut Tour on the fat tires further emphasizes his love-hate attitude to what for many would be a landmark career moment.

“Yes, I considered [skipping the Tour],” he said when asked of his summer schedule. “If I had the best way to go to the Olympics in my top shape, I would skip it. But I think the sponsors and also the team wants me to be there. So I understand.”

Maybe seeing Van Aert a few wheels ahead of him at the Tour will inspire van der Poel’s vigor when he rolls out for the grand départ this summer.