Believe it or not, it is almost time to turn the page on 2017. To close out the year, we are taking a look back at 13 of the stories that shaped the year. This list is by no means comprehensive and is loosely intended to be in chronological order, starting with the 2017 U.S. Cyclocross Nationals in Hartford.
In the last two weeks we have covered a lot of ground in our Year in Review. We’ve welcomed new champs, said goodbye to old ones and remembered one we lost too soon. For our 13th and final entry, we look at a one-time champion who is very likely to add more rainbow jerseys to his collection.
Last year, we could have arguably listed “the beautiful duel” between Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert as one of our highlights of 2016. Even though Van der Poel dominated the series on the course, there was a sense Van Aert could win most races and the Belgian ended up winning his second-straight World Championship in Bieles thanks in large part to Van der Poel’s flat-marred ride there.
In 2017, the “beautiful duel” has been an afterthought.
Van der Poel is riding on a completely different level than Van Aert and the other riders in the Men’s field. His trademark move has been his unmatchable five to ten-minute power that utterly demoralizes his opponents. Race after race he has opened massive gaps in a distance of a few hundred meters and then expanded those gaps with lap-long attacks.
The latest demonstration of his sheer power was Saturday night in Diegem, where he unleashed fury upon Van Aert and dropped him in the streets of Diegem. See a snippet below, and the full race video of his stunning comeback here.
In addition to his power, Van der Poel is also likely the best male cyclocross bike handler on the planet. His rides are a veritable clinic on how to ride a ’cross bike. He makes many of the toughest course features look like a ride in the park and excels at the “sight test.” You watch him ride and you know you are watching something special.
We probably needed to look no further than Van der Poel’s performances in the first two Mountain Bike World Cups this past summer for a sense of what was to come. The Dutch phenom finished 8th at the first World Cup after starting 90th and then took advantage of his front-row start at the second World Cup to battle the Mathieu van der Poel of mountain biking Nino Schurter before finishing second. When Van der Poel announced he has re-signed with his team through 2020, he said he will be targeting the 2020 Mountain Bike Olympics, so expect to see a lot more shredding from the young star.
Back on the cyclocross course, where is the best place to start?
After finishing second at Worlds, Van der Poel went on to win the next six races after Worlds before dropping the last race of the season. As always, with Van der Poel, “dropping” means “finishing second.” Those results were a sign of what was to come.
Thus far in the 2017/18 season, you can almost count the number of races Van der Poel has not won on one hand. He has won 21 of the 27 races he has started this year. His biggest foes have been mechanicals, crashes and a cold that slowed him down at World Cup Namur.
Van der Poel’s dominant season began with two utterly dominating wins at the Jingle Cross and Waterloo World Cups. In both races, he went solo off the front in the first lap and turned in performances that were “beautiful time trials.”
Since returning to Europe, he has continued winning pretty much every race in sight. He leads the World Cup series by 90 points, which means he would not even have to start the last race to win the GC, and is in front of the DVV Verzekeringen Trofee series by almost six minutes. One of his few hills to climb the rest of the season is in the Telenet Superprestige series, where he is one point behind Van Aert with two races to go.
Back in 1996, the Chicago Bulls adopted the slogan “72-10 don’t mean a thing without the ring,” heading into the NBA Playoffs after their memorable regular season. The point was all the wins in the world do not matter if you cannot win the championship.
Van der Poel headed to Bieles as the favorite, but on any given Sunday, bad things can happen in cyclocross. Van der Poel currently holds the European, Dutch National and World Cup leader jerseys, but there is no question his season of dominance will not be complete without the rainbow jersey at Worlds in Valkenburg. Come tomorrow, perhaps the Corendon-Circus merchandise tent will have something similar for Van der Poel. Maybe “21 wins is just hype without the stripes.” Call me Mathieu, I think we can make this work.
All of this discussion about cyclocross wins and domination is framed by the fact Van der Poel will be just 23 years old when he takes the line in Valkenburg. He has already accomplished so much at such a young age. Nothing is a given in sport, especially an individual pursuit like cycling, but the chances are good Van der Poel’s name will be ringing out in the fields of Belgium for years to come.