Mathieu van der Poel (NED) powered to his third consecutive world title Sunday in a solo victory in Ostende, Belgium.
The Dutchman rode away from archrival Wout van Aert (BEL) through the back half of this weekend’s cyclocross world championships to make it four victories in four races for his nation’s ‘crossers, and his own fourth elite cyclocross world title.
Van Aert mustered second place, some 37 seconds adrift, following a long lonely pursuit of his longtime foe for the second half of the race. Toon Aerts (BEL) paced across the line third while Tom Pidcock (GBR) finished fourth.
Van Aert and van der Poel had gone shoulder to shoulder through the opening laps, and it came down to slight errors and moments of misfortune to make the difference between the sport’s two standout riders.
Van Aert took the advantage in lap two when van der Poel twice faltered, only to then suffer a front-wheel puncture while leading the race in lap three as the Dutchman chased him down. Van Aert slowed as he nursed the flat to the pits to change bikes, allowing van der Poel to ride clear and power away to successfully defend his title from 2020.
“It means a lot, but it feels really strange – there’s no crowds, no family, or friends on the circuit and so it feels a bit weird,” van der Poel said in the moments after the race. “Maybe when I take the jersey a bit later on the podium maybe it will come to mind that I’m world champion again.”
Van Aert and Van der Poel went shoulder to shoulder through the opening laps, immediately living up to their billing as the two clear favorites for the race.
The dominant duo rode off the front of a group of Dutch and Belgian riders that had led through the opening lap, with van Aert first to take the lead.
Before the race, van Aert had been touted as having the upper hand thanks to superior skills in the sand, and the Belgian used his mastery of the loose beachy surface to take the first advantage in lap two. Van Aert and van der Poel were riding together through the deep sand when van der Poel slipped and faltered, allowing the Belgian to take the advantage. Van Aert soon gained a solid margin that grew further when van der Poel crashed on the grassy section while chasing.
Fortunes reversed in lap three, however. Van der Poel was closing down on the leader having launched a fierce pursuit, and just as the two were about to come back together, van Aert slowed as he struggled with an ill-timed front-wheel puncture.
Van der Poel rode off the front as van Aert limped into the pits to change machines, and from there, the race for the rainbow stripes was all but decided. The Dutchman said after the race that his rival’s puncture was beneficial to him, but not decisive.
“The flat tire was a bit of luck on my side to come back,” van der Poel said. “But at that point, I didn’t feel that the race was over.”
Van Aert said that the puncture didn’t just waste time and energy, but also burned some mental matches.
“I think after two circuits you could see that I was great,” he said. “The flat tire cost power, but everything has to go well. I can only blame myself that I couldn’t go through the wall after the flat tire. Something broke mentally and I am especially disappointed about that.”
Meanwhile, behind the two leaders, Aerts had clipped off the front of the chase pack, while Pidcock slowly worked his way through the field to move into fourth having got caught in the traffic in the opening lap.
Having set a red-hot pace in the opening laps, van Aert looked to fatigue as he went in pursuit of van der Poel, struggling in sandy sections he had previously aced. Though the Belgian kept van der Poel within sight, the defending champ surely winched out extra seconds to build a lead of over 20 seconds.
The Dutchman looked to improve with every lap as he mastered the ever-changing conditions on the coastal circuit. Van der Poel said after the race that the movement of the tide helped to turn the loose sand into a faster, more rideable surface that suited him.
“The course changed when the water went out a bit, it became faster on the beach, and I felt I had better legs,” he said. “And then I improved running in the sand every lap, and the good feeling was growing lap by lap, and I think that made the difference for me today.”
Pidcock’s mid-race comeback saw him bridge to Aerts at around lap six and the two traded turns in third place, 30 seconds behind van Aert.
Heading into the final lap, van der Poel had nearly 30 seconds of a lead over van Aert, with Aerts in third, 10 seconds ahead of Pidcock.
Van der Poel was assured of victory in the final circuit, but the Dutch superstar didn’t take his foot off the gas the whole way, ripping through the circuit to take his fourth title by a comfortable margin.
“He is the deserved champion,” van Aert said. “He drove strongly in the second part, while I didn’t get any closer.”
Curtis White, the sole U.S. rider in the race, took 20th place. Former world champ Zdeněk Štybar (CZE) finished 18th, while Bahrain-Victorious veteran Heinrich Haussler (AUS) was 35th.
2021 UCI world cyclocross championships podium
- Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands): 58:57
- Wout van Aert (Belgium): +0:37
- Toon Aerts (Belgium): 1: 24