As the sun set on the mud and grime of Hoogerheide and Mathieu van der Poel pulled on the rainbow jersey as male elite cyclo-cross World Champion, so ended another chapter of the engrossing saga of his rivalry with Wout van Aert. A rivalry that has now brought us so many edge of your seat moments, including the Tour of Flanders in 2020 and now a battle down to the wire in the Netherlands.
“I think if you take one of us two away, then it makes the race less interesting for sure,” said Van der Poel after receiving his rainbow jersey. “After our career it will be something special to look back on.”
Van der Poel is exactly right. Not only will it be something special for him to reflect back on when he’s sat in a café somewhere sipping an espresso, it’s also a once in a generation opportunity for us watching on at home to enjoy one of the great sporting rivalries that are few and far between.
Riders like the two current galacticos don’t come around often.
As each season passes, the duo continue to duke it out on the biggest of stages, like two prize fighters trading blows in a mud covered boxing ring. Cycling fans truly haven’t had it this good for a while.
Back in the 1980s was arguably the last time cycling fans were treated to a blockbuster rivalry on this scale
Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond were two riders that had floated around one another for a number of years, but perhaps the greatest chapter in their well-known rivalry was the 1986 Tour de France on the La Vie Claire team.
Coming into the race the previous year, Hinault had shown signs that he was on the way out with a fifth Tour title agonisingly close. Meanwhile LeMond, seven years the Frenchman’s junior, had already won the 1983 World Championships in Switzerland and was beginning to be talked up as a potential Tour winner himself.
The American floated through the mountains in 85, clearly capable of pushing on for the win, but was shackled by his sports director who had placed all his eggs in an Hinault-shaped basket.
A rivalry for the ages
The Frenchman went on to get that fifth win, and promised to work for his younger teammate the following year. However, once 86 arrived that promise began to look empty as with the Pyrenees in sight, the Badger attacked to take over the yellow jersey in Pau, sparking fury in the American.
LeMond would eventually take the victory, and fans on the roadside eagerly lapped up the drama as it unfolded.
You would have to go back even further to find another rivalry as enduring or thrilling as that of the current duo.
Gino Bartali’s legendary clashes with the great Fausto Coppi truly captured the sports imagination. The duo’s many duels-littered across the early history of the Giro d’Italia-are now only available to reflect back on in sepia toned photographs in cycling’s history books.
Throughout their many victories, Coppi and Bartali achieved near God-like status which was aided by their rivalry, in the same way that Van Aert and Van der Poel now continue to do.
Van Aert and Van der Poel’s battle in the last 300 metres of Flanders in 2020 will be just one of their defining moments. Inseparable for the entirety of the final third of the race, it would take something special to force a gap between the grandson of the great Raymond Poulidor and Van Aert.
On Sunday like their whole career they have barely been able to shake one another.
After the two riders had sailed under the one kilometre to go banner, they both had just seconds to figure out how to gap each other. In the end, Van der Poel forced Van Aert towards the barriers, masterfully giving him little room to manoeuvre as he got set to open up his sprint. Both riders then nearly came to a standstill, before unleashing nearly equal turns of speed as they raced towards the line.
It was always going to be millimetres that separated them. Van der Poel eventually winning by the smallest of margins. It was the kind of drama that was so enthralling, it will almost certainly warrant its place as its beamed onto the walls in a cycle racing museum in a corner of Flanders.
As the curtain falls on the cyclo-cross season, attention now turns to the white roads of Strade Bianche, a race they’ve both won before, and the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix, which neither has. Both fitting arenas for the two gladiators to continue their epic battle.
And one day this too will all fade like the tracks in the mud of Hoogerheide. We should appreciate it all while it’s still happening.