With three cyclocross world championships and a promising future as a Classics rider, Wout van Aert is a generational cycling talent.
Van Aert, however, is only the second-best multi-discipline cyclist of his own generation.
Last year, we wrote about the domination of Mathieu van der Poel as one of our top stories of 2017.
In 2018, Van der Poel has been even more dominant at cyclocross, but in succeeding at the mountain bike XCO World Cups and unifying the three Dutch National title belts, Van der Poel’s pure brilliance as a bike racer has been on constant display this calendar year.
Cyclocross Dominance, the Sight Test
When talking about Mathieu van der Poel’s cyclocross dominance, it is tempting to defer to the numbers. However, every once in a while an athlete comes along who is fun to watch because of how much better they are than those around them.
There is no question that Van der Poel aces the sight test. How he wins bike races can be downright jaw-dropping at times.
Last night’s race at Superprestige Diegem is the perfect microcosm of how good Van der Poel is at racing bikes. At the famed night race, he got off to a slow start, but by the end of Lap 3, Van der Poel was at the front of the race.
First, there was how well he rode the off-camber. The tricky technical feature claimed its fair share of the world’s best riders. Van der Poel rode the feature with a speed and deftness that made it appear like it was a pedestrian cyclocross course feature.
Then there was the post-course-marshall-crash comeback. After running into the wayward marshall, Van der Poel did not panic when Michael Vanthourenhout took the lead, he simply powered forward and closed the gap within minutes.
Then a lap later, he unleashed his patented attack through the streets of Diegem to utterly bury Vanthourenhout.
And Vanthourenhout is a good bike racer! He finished second at Worlds last year and has been on a number of podiums this year. Van der Poel is just so much better than him right now.
The comeback is just the latest head-turning display from Van der Poel. There was also his baller pass of Toon Aerts on the rutted off-camber at Namur and his dominant win at Superprestige Gieten the day after twisting his ankle at Lokeren. And he has not even cut a follow-up video to him bunny hopping coolers and railing sand corners yet this season.
Cyclocross Dominance, by the Numbers
Van der Poel’s dominance can also be distilled down to cold, unfeeling numbers.
Last year, Van der Poel won 32 races, tying him with Roland Liboton for the all-time record. This calendar year, Van der Poel won 28 of the 31 races he started. More on one of those races in a bit.
Thus far this season, Van der Poel has won 20 races. You can count the races he did not win—Lokeren and Koppenbergcross—on literally two fingers. Van der Poel has not not won a race since November 1 when he had a disastrous day on the Koppenberg.
In theory, the Dutch wunderkind could enter the 2019 World Championships in Bogense on a three-month winning streak. Not three races, three months.
Last year, in what proved to be oddly prescient, I wrote about my favorite childhood team—the 1996/97 Chicago Bulls—who had a slogan that said “72-10 don’t mean a thing without the ring,” and suggested Van der Poel should adopt something along the lines of “21 wins are all hype without the stripes.”
Despite Van der Poel’s dominance of the “regular season,” he has not delivered the last three years when the rainbow stripes were on the line. With 26 2017/18 wins heading into the 2018 World Championships in Valkenburg, Van der Poel had an “off” day and finished third behind Van Aert and Vanthourenhout.
His dominance thus far this season suggests Van der Poel will win his second Elite world championship on February 3, but as they say, that is why they race the races. And seriously Mathieu, call me about putting together a slogan and t-shirt.
The Brilliance of Mathieu van der Poel
Winning at cyclocross the way Van der Poel has done is impressive, but being really good at all aspects of bike racing has put Van der Poel in virtuoso territory.
In 2017 we got a sense of what Van der Poel could do on a mountain bike when he finished 8th after starting 90th at Nove Mesto and battled living legend Nino Schurter before finishing second at Albstadt.
At the beginning of the year, Van der Poel announced he was re-signing with Corendon-Circus and committing to XCO mountain bike racing with his eye turned toward Tokyo 2020.
His full mountain bike campaign was rather successful. Van der Poel finished on the podium in three of the World Cups and took second in the overall series behind Schurter. To cap it off, Van der Poel finished third at Worlds in Lenzerheide. Oh, and he also won Dutch Nationals.
That was the dirt. On the road, Van der Poel also had some impressive results.
At Dutch Road Nationals, Van der Poel won the Dutch jersey with a baller AF move next to the barriers to win the bunch sprint.
He also won two stages at the Arctic Race of Norway a month before heading to Lenzerheide for XCO Worlds.
Fans will get a better sense of what Van der Poel can do against the world’s best on the road this coming spring when he tries his hand at some of the iconic Spring Classics events with his Corendon – Circus team.
Those who follow Van der Poel on the ’cross course will not be surprised in the least if he turns in performances like Van Aert’s impressive third at Strade Bianche last season.
The B Word
During his run of dominance, Van der Poel’s winning moves hav usually come in the first half of races. With Van Aert taking second behind Van der Poel in 12 of his wins this season, there has been little in the way of drama in the Elite Men’s races this season.
Van der Poel’s early-race dominance has played out against the backdrop of Elite Women’s field that has produced last-lap drama more often than it has not. Part of that is thanks to Sanne Cant’s penchant for bell-lap flourishes, but part is thanks to the rise of Denise Betsema, Lucinda Brand, Annemarie Worst and others who can win any race and the early-season return of living legend Marianne Vos.
In online discussion and even other cycling publications, the word boring has become de rigueuer when talking about the European men’s racing. TV viewership data from Belgium suggest fewer fans are tuning into the Elite Men’s races this season, and the online discussion of Van der Poel’s impact on the engagement of the men’s racing is unavoidable.
So is Mathieu van der Poel’s dominance boring?
The man is otherworldly in his skills on the cyclocross course and dominance like Van der Poel is pulling off right now comes along at best once every decade.
At the same time, we get that drama in cyclocross racing makes the full race more engaging and interesting. Watching until Van der Poel’s big move 15 minutes into the race does not have the same level of engagement as a last-lap duel.
With his future in ’cross uncertain after next year, our vote is to enjoy his brilliant riding and celebrate those moments like Namur or Diegem where he puts his greatness on full display.
After all, how often do you get to watch a generational talent who is an order of magnitude better than another generational talent?
For more on the year that was in 2018, see our look at six standout Cyclocross races from the last year.
Featured image: Andrew Yee