Advertisement

OSTEND, Belgium—The most-anticipated duel of the weekend delivered on its promise of drama early on in the race.

While the U23 Women enjoyed dry, cold conditions earlier today, they gave way to afternoon showers, while pre-race favorites Mathieu van der Poel (NED) and Wout van Aert (BEL) poured cold water on everyone else’s rainbow jersey hopes.

Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel added another dramatic chapter to their rivalry. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel added another dramatic chapter to their rivalry. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

Mechanicals, Bobbles and Running Define the Rivalry

Over the years, the victor between Van der Poel and Van Aert has been determined by flat tires, bobbles and long running sections.

This season, if Van der Poel flatted, Van Aert took advantage and served up two of his rival’s three defeats this season.

At the 2017 World Championships in Bieles, five flats doomed the Dutchman’s chances of taking back the rainbow jersey, while Van Aert’s famous Niels Albert-cured green Michelin Mud tubulars helped him avoid any punctures.

Long, running sections have often proven to be Van der Poel’s weakness. At the massively muddy 2018 Worlds in Valkenburg, Van Aert ran away from his rival, and repeated this feat this season at the World Cup in Dendermonde. Could the long beach run of Ostend be Van der Poel’s weakness?

Technical sections that Van der Poel can ride has often been Van Aert’s undoing. We saw a late off-camber bobble by Van Aert in Bogense that cost him the 2019 title, and we saw the same thing play out over the years at Superprestige Diegem and at Flandriencross in Hamme.

With two competitors so closely matched, the 2021 rainbow jersey would likely be awarded to the racer who could avoid repeating such history.

Ostend Extends the Pattern

On the first lap, after a Van der Poel holeshot followed closely by Van Aert, the two kings of ’cross hit the beach for the first time together.

After a long run and a power-sucking rideable sand stretch coming off the ocean, they exited the beach in tandem.

As they climbed the iconic bridge and its 21-percent grade, the two favorites left the others stuck in the sand, fighting for bronze.

Van der Poel and Van Aert delivered another dramatic chapter of their rivalry. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

Van der Poel and Van Aert delivered another dramatic chapter of their rivalry. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

After just half a lap, pack of Belgians led by Laurens Sweeck and Toon Aerts was caught in the turbulence left by the two favorites.

With nobody else to get in the way,  the two rivals took turns at the front through the first lap and a half, until mistakes took their toll.

A small bobble in the sand before the bridge forced Van der Poel to dismount, while Van Aert rode the section cleanly and accelerated away.

In a frantic chase to claw back Van Aert, Van der Poel then crashed in a muddy rut on the grassy half of the course, and suddenly, a fourth title for the defending champ looked in jeopardy.

Van der Poel crossed the finish line after two laps 14 seconds in arrears.

Role Reversal, Rolling Away

Van Aert took advantage of his rival’s flat tire twice this season, but on Sunday in Ostend, it was his turn for bad luck. A front flat slowed Van Aert on Lap Three, helping Van der Poel close the gap and then move off the front.

Van der Poel made the fewest mistakes late to win his fourth title. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

Van der Poel made the fewest mistakes late to win his fourth title. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

Van der Poel, remembering how his own flat tires put him on the defensive and cost him victory earlier this season, didn’t waste the moment, and accelerated to finish off his fastest lap, and the fastest of the day.

“For sure the flat tire was a little bit of luck from my side to come back,” Van der Poel said. “At that moment, I didn’t think the race was over yet.”

“I was in a favorable situation, but that flat tire took a lot of time,” Van Aert said after the finish (translated). “I think I lost about half a minute with it.

Clear Sailing on the Beach

With Van Aert on the defensive, Van der Poel put together a string of flawless, consistent laps to stretch out his lead and flip the script.

Once Van der Poel hit the front, he had a clear path through the sand and used it to his advantage, pedaling through sections that gave him earlier trouble and forced most of the field to dismount.

Van der Poel hit the front on lap three and never looked back. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

Van der Poel hit the front on lap three and never looked back. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

On Lap Five, Van Aert took his turn to bobble in the sand, dismounting in the same sand section that helped him secure an early lead. He remounted, and then had to jump off just before the bridge.

Wout van Aert was forced to chase but lost ground each lap after his flat tire on Lap Three. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

Wout van Aert was forced to chase but lost ground each lap after his flat tire on Lap Three. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

On Lap Six, Van Aert had to hop off again, and Van der Poel was perfect through the sand.

“I improved every lap running through the sand, the good feeling was growing from lap to lap, so I think that made the difference for me today,” Van der Poel recalled.

First to Fourth

Van der Poel was close to perfect late, and perfect when it mattered.

While three three-time World Champs took the start, including Czech Zdenek Stybar, Van Aert and Van der Poel started the day determined to be the first to four titles.

After passing Van Aert, Van der Poel inched closer to a fourth title every lap. On Lap Four, he took gained four seconds. On Lap Five, he stretched out his lead by five seconds. The next lap, eight seconds. On the penultimate lap, another seven seconds.

The two entered the final lap separated by 28 seconds, a comfortable margin barring a disaster.

Van der Poel wins his fourth Elite Men's World Championship title. 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

Van der Poel wins his fourth Elite Men’s World Championship title. 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

There would be no disaster or complacency. Van der Poel pulled out another nine seconds with a conservative last lap, and coasted down the horse track finishing straight pumping his fist.

With a Worlds title on the line, the gap took its mental and physical toll on the chaser.

One time I came very close, but then I exploded,” Van Aert admitted. “I think you saw in the first two rounds that I was great. But that took a lot of strength. To win Worlds, everything has to be okay. After that flat tire, something broke mentally and I could no longer go through a wall. That’s not my habit. ”

First to fourth. “It means a lot,” Van der Poel said after the finish.

Only it didn’t feel like a Worlds win.

“It feels really strange,” said the four-time champ. “It doesn’t really feel like the world championships. There are no crowds, no friends, no family around the track, it feels a bit weird. But when I will take the jersey on the podium, maybe it will come to mind that I’m the world champion again.”

Van Aert was gracious in defeat, saying, “Mathieu is a deserved champion, he has ridden very strongly.”

The Belgian also alleviated fears that his lucrative Jumbo Visma road contract will keep him away from cyclocross. “Fortunately, there is always the next race,” he said. “I will now enjoy a week of rest and then work on the coming goals. And next year we’ll try again.”

One Medal Left

The race for bronze. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

The race for bronze. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

The race for third was a back-and-forth battle between Belgian Toon Aerts and Brit Tom Pidcock. Pidcock chased back from a slow start to overtake Aerts, but Aerts used the sand to open up what looked to be an insurmountable lead.

Toon Aerts used the sand to his advantage and secured the bronze. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

Toon Aerts used the sand to his advantage and secured the bronze. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

With two to go, Laurens Sweeck looked to threaten Pidcock’s fourth position, but a fateful pass through the sand let Pidcock pull away.

On the final lap, Pidcock roared back to force Aerts to sprint for third.

Van der Poel wins the race to a fourth Worlds title. Van Aert and Aerts secured silver and bronze, respectively. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

Van der Poel wins the race to a fourth Worlds title. Van Aert and Aerts secured silver and bronze, respectively. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

Except for Pidcock, the entire top 12 was composed of Belgians and Dutch racers.

The Dutch swept all four titles of the weekend.

American Curtis White had a strong ride to finish 20th.

Curtis White raced to 20th place. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

Curtis White raced to 20th place. Elite Men, 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, Ostend, Belgium. © Alain Vandepontseele / Cyclocross Magazine

Follow all our 2021 UCI Cyclocross World Championships coverage from Ostend, Belgium here.

2021 UCI Cyclocross World Championships Sunday Results: Elite Men

RankBIBRiderNationAgeResult
11VAN DER POEL MathieuNED260:58:57
27VAN AERT WoutBEL270:59:34
38AERTS ToonBEL281:00:21
442PIDCOCK ThomasGBR221:00:34
510SWEECK LaurensBEL281:01:02
69VANTHOURENHOUT MichaelBEL281:01:11
76ISERBYT EliBEL241:01:15
811HERMANS QuintenBEL261:01:20
92VAN DER HAAR LarsNED301:01:38
104NIEUWENHUIS JorisNED251:02:12
113VAN KESSEL CorneNED301:03:06
1212VERMEERSCH GianniBEL291:03:18
1318KUHN KevinSUI231:03:26
1413SOETE DaanBEL271:03:54
1528GRAS YanFRA251:04:08
1627DUBAU JoshuaFRA251:04:25
1714MERLIER TimBEL291:04:31
1824ŠTYBAR ZdeněkCZE361:04:39
1919RÜEGG TimonSUI251:04:47
2021WHITE CurtisUSA261:05:30
215VAN DER POEL DavidNED29
2225MENUT DavidFRA29
2332BERTOLINI GioeleITA26
2434DORIGONI JakobITA23
2545LINDBERG JonasDEN24
2629ORTS LLORET FelipeESP26
2726CHAINEL SteveFRA38
2835COMINELLI CristianITA33
2930SUAREZ FERNANDEZ KevinESP27
3020MOTTIEZ GillesSUI24
3131ESTEBAN AGUERO IsmaelESP38
3244CARSTENSEN Sebastian FiniDEN26
3322BOROŠ MichaelCZE29
3443WEBER SaschaGER33
3551HAUSSLER HeinrichAUS37
3646KONWA MarekPOL31
3740GLAJZA OndrejSVK27
3833SAMPARISI NicolasITA29
3936FOLCARELLI AntonioITA23
4039ULIK MatejSVK24
4149MICHALEK MariuszPOL34
4250HEIGL PhilippAUT28
4341KURTY JakubSVK24
4448KOSTECKI PatrykPOL28