Mathieu van der Poel outsprints Wout van Aert in nail-biter world championship duel

Van Aert and Van der Poel near inseparable after blowing away the bunch in the opening minutes of Hoogerheide race.

Photo: Matthias Ekman

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Mathieu van der Poel launched a huge muscling sprint to beat Wout van Aert to world championship victory in Hoogerheide.

The victory was Van der Poel’s fifth elite title and a race for the ages after the “two titans” of ‘cross locked into a tense battle from as early as the fourth minute of racing.

The race put a perfect exclamation point on the latest chapter in Van Aert and Van der Poel’s rivalry after the two went head to head in a series of big-hype bouts through the winter.

Eli Iserbyt (Belgium) won bronze, but all Belgian eyes would have been on the royal rumble at the front of the race.

“Everyone said in advance the race should be a sprint between me and Wout. It’s incredible,” Van der Poel said at the finish. “This is for sure one of my top-3 nicest victories of all time … I’ll remember this for a long time.”

Van der Poel’s victory Sunday handed him his fifth elite world title after he entered the race overshadowed by Van Aert and the Belgian’s crushing ‘cross season.

A return of back problems through the turn of the year threw a further wrench into MvdP’s program.

“It’s hard to put into words. I worked super hard for this one, I had a few problems with my back again, but I reset with the team at training camp and worked toward this race, which I marked from the beginning of the season,” he said.

Van der Poel now carries a five-to-three world title lead over Van Aert in what was their eighth duel for elite rainbows.

“Everyone knows the story, we pushed each other for 10 years,” Van der Poel said of his Belgian foe. “I think the crowds would have been different today if it was just me, or just him. We both bring each other and the sport to a higher level. I’ve never seen anything like this in cyclocross.

“We get worried by the other, but after our careers, we’ll be proud of these battles.”

It was a big day Sunday in Hoogerheide. (Photo: Matthias Ekman)

A sunny, windy day Sunday dried out the Hoogerheide course after rain Saturday left the circuit slick and greasy. The conditions became so fast Van Aert opted for a huge 48T single chainring for what was set for a rocketspeed race.

Some 40,000 spectators turned out in anticipation of a Van Aert vs Van der Poel prizefight Sunday, and the two titans didn’t disappoint as they separated off the front in the fourth minute of racing.

Van der Poel piled the pressure on Van Aert through much of the opening half of the race as the Dutchman led the two archrivals in a cyclocross sprint around the hard, rutted circuit.

For every tiny advantage Van der Poel snatched hopping the huge 40cm barriers at the end of the circuit, Van Aert’s raw power and finesse through a wooded downhill pulled it back.

Behind, Belgian pair Gerben Kuypers, and Michael Vanthourenhout chased ahead of a veritable cyclocross peloton led by Lars van der Haar.

Van Aert and Van der Poel seemed inseparable and fell to shadowboxing through the middle of the race in anticipation of the haymakers to come.

The race bubbled back to life in lap seven of 10 as Van der Poel tried to crack his decade-long rival. The Dutchman attacked twice through the circuit but couldn’t distance Van Aert in near-road racing conditions.

Van Aert, Van der Poel
A hard, dry course made for an extra fast race Sunday. (Photo: Matthias Ekman)

Van Aert began to take the initiative in the final circuits and cranked the pace after Van der Poel had dug deep to do some damage, but there was no separating the “two titans.”

The two leaders went shoulder to shoulder through the final sections of the race as a final sprint seemed inevitable.

“I felt super relaxed and that was maybe the key to win today,” Van der Poel said. “Everyone expected me to make a move at the barriers but I knew I wanted to go to a sprint, I know the sprint here.”

Van der Poel launched the sprint from behind Van Aert, and the Belgian couldn’t counter. Van der Poel made a huge muscling charge for the line that couldn’t be countered as the Dutchman clocked a fifth elite world title.

Lars van der Haar (Netherlands) and Iserbyt overhauled Vanthourenhout and Kuypers through the back end of the race and locked in to battle for bronze.

Iserbyt bettered the Dutchman for a consolation two-three for Belgium as Van der Poel scored an emotional first rainbow jersey on home soil. Team USA’s Curtis White came home 27th.

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