Belgian champion Wout van Aert admitted that he was left confused by the tactics of rival Mathieu van der Poel which led to the Dutchman’s victory in the elite men’s UCI Cyclocross World Championships on Sunday at Hoogerheide.
Van Aert had predicted that his Dutch nemesis might use his bunny hopping ability to force a vital gap in the final section of the barriers before an uphill road sprint finish. However, when the moment came, Van der Poel instead stayed in second place and surprised Van Aert with a late charge to the line, leaving the Belgian no time to muster a response.
“In my mind I was always expecting to be in second position on the sprint because of the placement of the barriers,” said a disappointed Van Aert after settling for the silver medal. “I was focused on that and I was a bit confused so I forgot to ride my own sprint.”
Reflecting on losing the world championship title to his rival once again, a fourth time in an elite race, Van Aert thought he should have launched the sprint first when they hit the tarmac on the final stretch to the line.
“If I sprinted straight from the corner maybe Mathieu passes me but I would probably have a better feeling if I had done it,” added Van Aert.
“I feel like I could have won the race as we were in the final minute of the race together and I still had my chance. He came from behind getting two bike lengths, I got into his slipstream but couldn’t close it in time. I had a 48-inch front ring on the back, I started changing gears as soon as Mathieu passed me but I didn’t have enough gears.”
Van der Poel launched several unsuccessful attacks in an attempt to drop his rival during the race, but Van Aert was able to respond each time. The Belgian said he left it to the final sprint after being unable to muster an attack of his own.
“It was a really tough race for me; from the first lap Mathieu put under pressure,” added Van Aert.
“The first half of the race it was difficult and because of that I didn’t really feel like trying something. The race was quite fast so it wouldn’t really make sense to try something.
“Things always happen for a reason and I was really on the limit from the start. I think he was stronger at the end of the day.”
In the lead up to the race, the barriers were earmarked as a place where Van der Poel could distance his rival. The course and its man-made elements were designed by Adrie van der Poel, a 1996 elite men’s World Champion in ‘cross and father of Mathieu. He added the boards on an uphill section close to the finish, and had them installed at the maximum height limit of 40 centemetres (16 inches), rather than the 35-centemetre height that is prevalent in other races during the regular season.
However, on the critical day to decide the rainbow jersey, Van Aert managed to cancel out any moves on the barrier section and said that they had no impact on the final result.
“It was just like in every race, Mathieu jumps a bit faster as he is better at it,” Van Aert added.
Van Aert will now turn his attention to the road campaign and more meetings with Van der Poel during the early season Classics.
Like Van der Poel, the Belgian will start his season at Strade Bianche next month, with the pair also set to meet at Milan-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Van Aert says that only four weeks until his first road race will take his mind off finishing second at the Cyclocross World Championships.
“I don’t need this for motivation for the road season,” said the Jumbo-Visma rider.
“It’s one good thing that it’s coming really fast so it will be easier to change my mindset in the next few days. It’s as expected that one would be really happy and the guy who finished second would be really disappointed so that’s just how it is.”