Monday Morning quarterbacking was common the day after the UCI Cyclocross World Championships weekend. That’s partially because Worlds used to share the same weekend as the NFL’s Super Bowl, but now that the two events are separated by a week, we can focus on the post-Worlds comments from the racers and the commentators about the duel between superstars Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert.
Wout van Aert: A Cowardly Rider?
Belgian Wout van Aert, who fell just meters short of equalling his rival’s rainbow jersey tally, instead ended up two jerseys behind in the count.
WHAT. A. BATTLE. 👏
Mathieu van der Poel 🇳🇱 does it!
He is your 2023 UCI Cyclo-cross Men Elite World Champion! 🌈#Hoogerheide2023 pic.twitter.com/oN1Wh2UUmr
— UCI Cyclocross (@UCI_CX) February 5, 2023
Van Aert was honest in his explanation of his race strategy and result in a Sporza interview. “The first half hour I therefore struggled a lot to keep [Van der Poel’s] wheel,” Van Aert said about the early race attacks by Van der Poel. “That meant that I was doomed to stay in the wheel like a cowardly rider for the rest of the race.” (translated)
Mathieu van Der Poel 🇳🇱 attacks.
But Wout van Aert 🇧🇪 holds.
What a battle!#Hoogerheide2023 pic.twitter.com/Wp3b1YMNyw
— UCI Cyclocross (@UCI_CX) February 5, 2023
Van Aert, like every live commentator and the Adri van der Poel-designed course critics, expected Van der Poel to attack at the barriers. While he did that several times during the race and had a clear advantage, the final lap attack at the planks never happened and it surprised Van Aert.
“I was actually surprised that he didn’t try anything there,” Van Aert recalled. “I was in my head the entire race that I would start the sprint in second place. A ready-made plan for that scenario was therefore not immediately ready. I made the mistake of not starting immediately. Then I would have had a better chance of winning.”
I was doomed to stay in the wheel like a cowardly rider for the rest of the race. -Wout van Aert
Mathieu van der Poel: Calm and Ready for a Sprint
“I stayed calm and everyone expected an attack on the bars, but I really wanted to go for the sprint,” Van der Poel revealed right after his win.
Later to sporza, Van der Poel further explained his plan of surprise. “Everyone expected me on the beams, but I wanted to finish second on the last straight line. Van Aert had not expected that. That was my plan,” he said. “On that difficult uphill part I noticed that I was not the lesser and that gave me confidence for my sprint. I expected Wout to start immediately, but that didn’t happen. That surprised me a bit. It was a tailwind: whoever started first had an advantage. I did that well.”
I expected Wout to start immediately, but that didn’t happen. That surprised me a bit. It was a tailwind: whoever started first had an advantage. -Mathieu van der Poel
Commentators Are Critical of Wout
Radio commentator Christoph Vandegoor reflected on the duel. “The fact that Van Aert said that he had suffered enormously in the first half hour to stay in Van der Poel’s wheel explains why Van Aert was unable to force anything in the second half of the race and especially in the last lap,” he said. “In fact, Van der Poel forced Van Aert to take the lead. He left that last lap completely to him. That confused Van Aert, he said afterward, so that he forgot to drive a good sprint.”
“The winner of the green jersey in the Tour and the winner on the Champs-Elysées knocked out in the sprint… That’s something. …Van der Poel…turned out to be the coolest, who won the game not only physically, but also mentally.”
Former Dutch pro Richard Groenendaal also weighed in. “Van Aert let himself be lured into a trap there”, Richard Groenendaal said. “He starts too late and makes the same mistake as in the Tour of Flanders.”
Belgian Sven Nys agreed with Groenendaal. “I’m also left with that feeling,” says Sven Nys. “Van Aert has already proven that he has more power and therefore benefits from a longer effort. Mathieu simply has more explosiveness in his muscle fibers by nature.”
“Van Aert should have continued his effort all the way through the last lap,” explained Nys. “I expected it to last until the last lap, but I thought Van Aert was going to put pressure on the last climb – to neutralize Mathieu’s explosiveness. He probably thought that Van der Poel was going to take revenge on the beams, to counter in turn with a sprint from Mathieu’s wheel. He should have made such an elongated effort, but it didn’t happen.”
It’s easy to criticize riders after a race, but Van Aert was critical of himself and also gracious in defeat. “I am disappointed that I did not win the race, but I do not need comforting words today,” said Van Aert. “Mathieu was the best man in the race today.”
I hate it but I love it 🥲 pic.twitter.com/EjNv9z7BiL
— Wout van Aert (@WoutvanAert) February 6, 2023
See the full results from the Elite Men’s race at the 2023 UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Hoogerheide here.
Featured photo: B. Hazen