Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert served up yet another gripping cyclo-cross encounter in the penultimate World Cup round in Benidorm, where the Dutchman drew on all of his strength and off-road nous to outsprint his rival to take victory.
The pair had emerged on the ninth and final lap from a five-strong group that also featured world champion Tom Pidcock, World Cup leader Laurens Sweeck and Belgium’s Eli Iserbyt. The turning point in van Aert-van der Poel contest came late on when the pair had finally gapped their rivals. The Dutchman took the inside line on a 180-degree corner to seize the lead from the Belgian. Van der Poel was slightly smoother when bunny-hopping the planks soon after and kept driving hard at the front going into the last corner, where van Aert slightly overcooked his effort and went close to the barriers, enabling van der Poel to take victory.
Ultimately, Iserbyt held this duo’s pace the longest and took the final podium spot. Fourth place on the day sealed the overall World Cup title for Sweeck, while Pidcock was fifth in his final cyclo-cross outing of the season.
“To win is always super nice. It was a really nice race, quite dangerous, slippery and difficult to ride as fast as we were, and it was a great race with Wout. It was important to be at the front at the bunnyhops as it was a short sprint,” said the Dutchman. “My back was a lot better than previous races and that enabled me to go really deep and that was what I needed to win today.”
How it unfolded
Van der Poel was fastest away in the frantic dash from the start, ahead of Iserbyt, as Pidcock dive-bombed through on an early corner to take third place, while van Aert was back in 10th place until the riders reached the long road drag where he powered up into the top five. Having picked off Iserbyt, Pidcock fired past van der Poel and quickly opened a two-second lead at the end of lap one, ahead of van der Poel and Switzerland’s Kevin Kühn. Iserbyt, van Aert and World Cup leader Sweeck were also in close contention.
On lap two, this sextet was already some clear of the rest of the pack, Sweeck, van der Poel and Pidcock each taking turns at the front. By the end of lap three, with the race a third done, they had 23 seconds on the riders behind them.
Early on lap four van der Poel made a big effort, staying in the saddle through the sandpit and then charging up the long road drag, where van Aert moved to the head of the chasers behind him. Further back, Pidcock and Kühn lost ground, as the Iserbyt and Sweeck chased the two superstars.
On lap five, van der Poel powered through the sand again while his rivals all took to their feet. It gave him a gap that he strove to extend on the road climb. However, van Aert and then Iserbyt got back up to him, with the other trio more 10 seconds back. Yet, Pidcock and Sweeck weren’t done yet, the pair taking advantage of the stop-start tussle between the leading three to bridge back up to them at the end of lap six.
On lap seven, Iserbyt tested the big names, but van Aert led into the road climb and stomped up it, van der Poel the only one able to respond to his attack. The pair led Sweeck by seven seconds going into the penultimate lap, but as they eased again the World Cup leader bridged up to them on the road drag and went straight to the front.
It was Sweeck who led into the final lap, where Iserbyt managed to make it four at the front. On the tight twists early in the lap, van Aert and van der Poel went shoulder to shoulder to dispute the lead, the Belgian besting his rival initially, only to be outmanoeuvred by the Dutchman on a 180-degree turn where van der Poel cleverly took the inside line. From that point, he kept the power on, maintained his composure and ultimately clinched a thrilling victory that suggests his back problems may be receding and bodes well for his upcoming Spring Classics campaign on the road.