All the numbers—14 straight wins, 23 wins in 24 races this season, 49 wins in his last 50 races—pointed to Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands) winning Sunday’s Elite Men’s World Championships in Dübendorf, likely in dominant fashion.
However, as has been well-documented, Van der Poel entered the World Championships as the man to beat in previous years, only to come away with silver and bronze instead of the rainbow stripes.
With overnight rains changing the airfield course into a mudder reminiscent of Belgium, Van der Poel left absolutely nothing to chance in his bid for a second-straight Worlds title.
Van der Poel took the holeshot and through the flyovers and mire leading to the first traverse of the steep berm, Van der Poel held onto the first spot against his Belgian challengers. After the first up and downs over the steep feature, only Toon Aerts (Belgium) was with the defending champ.
Holding off a couple bids by Aerts to take over the lead position, Van der Poel dashed away from the Belgian near the barriers in the first lap to take a 12-second lead after the first of seven long trips around the Dübendorf course.
From there, Van der Poel rode a wire-to-wire masterpiece to join Wout van Aert (Belgium) and Sanne Cant (Belgium) as a recent inductee to the Triple Rainbow fraternity.
“It’s pretty special. It was one of my big goals this season,” Van der Poel said about his win. “I’ve said before, I did not have any other big classifications to defend, so this was one of my big goals. I had one of my best days of the season, so I am really happy how it worked out.”
Van der Dominant
On Saturday, the expected rains did not come, leaving the course at the Dübendorf airfield relatively dry and fast and not the “tractor pull” some folks prognosticated.
Never fear though, because overnight rains meant Sunday’s racers got to race in the thick Swiss mud on the relatively flat course punctuated by a gaggle of flyovers and trips up and down a steep berm on the far side of the course.
If the conditions were reminiscent of any recent Worlds, one could argue it was Valkenburg in 2018, minus the elevation change, of course. Mathieu van der Poel went into that race as the odds-on favorite, only to have his rainbow dreams left mired in the Limburg mud.
Heavy conditions like the ones in Dübendorf on Sunday always add an unexpected element to the cyclocross mix, so gold-medal aspirants such as Van der Poel likely wanted to do as much as they could to limit the unexpected.
Van der Poel’s bid to avoid the ghosts of Worlds disappointment past seemed simple enough on Sunday. From the opening green light, Van der Poel clipped in and exploded to the front of the holeshot. He led the field off the tarmac and onto the muddy opening of the course with other rainbow dreamers Toon Aerts and Eli Iserbyt (Belgium) hot on his wheel.
“I think it was an honest race, the strongest men were in front early,” Van der Poel said about the start with three of the race’s top favorites occupying the podium positions.
As the riders summited the first few flyovers and then snaked their way toward the 5-ish meter tall berm that towered over the Swiss course, Van der Poel continued to drive the pace at the front. At the top of the final flyover before the berm, Aerts appeared to make a move to take the lead, but Van der Poel put in an extra pedal stroke to hold onto the lead position. From the early stages, it appeared the Dutch phenom had a very clear plan for Sunday’s hour of racing.
The steep ascents of the first berm created separation at the front. Van der Poel stayed in the lead, and Aerts joined him with a small lead on the others after clearing the ups and downs. The Sauces duo of Iserbyt and Michael Vanthourenhout (Belgium) trailed behind by a few seconds.
Throughout his run of cyclocross dominance, Van der Poel has often won races with blistering attacks of sheer pedaling power none of his peers can match. You do not win 49 of 50 races, however, as just a one-dimensional rider.
After the riders reached the berm at the far end of the course, the flat section leading to the barriers became unrideable. As the two leaders went afoot, Van der Poel quickly dashed away from Aerts. By the time the two had reached the barriers, Van der Poel had a noticeable gap.
Back on the bike, he pressed his advantage, and 1 lap into the 7-lap race, his lead on Aerts was 12 seconds. Iserbyt chased 16 seconds back, then Vanthourenhout at 22 seconds and a trio of riders in Van Aert, Tom Pidcock (Great Britain) and Laurens Sweeck (Belgium) at 27 seconds back.
If there was any question of whether Aerts would be able to make a charge forward like Van Aert did last year in Bogense, it was answered when Aerts dropped back toward the slew of chasers and Van der Poel quickly extended his lead. Two laps into the race, the Dutchman was flying at 48 seconds. A lap later it was up to a minute.
Van der Poel’s lead would top out at 1:36 as he rode the closest thing possible to a perfect race on the deceptively challenging and brutal Dübendorf course.
“I expected it to break up because the course was really tough,” he said. “I think it was one of the hardest races I have ever done. Those last laps, the bridges were really hard to get up.”
Ever the showman, Van der Poel stopped at the finish to take a curtain call as he joined the Triple Rainbow Club.
“When I managed to get away in the first lap and get an immediate gap, it gave me wings. Then I rode the perfect race.”
Battle for First
With Van der Poel gone to glory, the race to watch was the one for second. Ostensibly, the race for second also doubled as the battle for First Belgian, but British wunderkind Tom Pidcock, who—like Elite Women’s champ Ceylin Alvarado (Netherlands)—eschewed his U23 eligibility to race Elites, was also in the mix looking to make First Belgian third overall.
Entering the second lap, Aerts held an advantage on Iserbyt, then Vanthourenhout, but as the second of seven laps progressed, the gaggle of chasers slowly reeled the Bogense bronze medalist in. With riders trying to find clean lines any way possible, the group was kind of together by the time they hit the barriers near the end of Lap 2.
Early in Lap 3, the group became 6—Aerts, Iserbyt, Vanthourenhout, Pidcock, Van Aert and Sweeck. With riders battling the mire and ruts as much as each other, there were no leaders during the lap, more riders who happened to be at the front.
“The conditions were totally different than yesterday,” Van Aert told Sporza (translated). “There’s wasn’t a lot of tactics. You, in particular, had to make sure that you didn’t go over your limit.”
That changed toward the end of Lap 3. After giving up third in the last lap at World Cup Namur, Pidcock made it clear he fully intended on finishing on an Elite World Cup podium this season. He came up short of that goal, finishing fifth a Nommay and seventh at Hoogerheide. No doubt, he would trade a Worlds podium for all the close calls.
Last year at U23 Worlds, Pidcock showed he is not afraid of attacking early in races, as he nearly literally crushed Iserbyt’s soul with an early-race attack that proved rainbow-worthy.
Sunday, in the mix with the world’s best Elites, Pidcock showed no fear—or perhaps youthful exhuberance—when he unleashed a massive attack at Pit 2. Initially, unlike in Bogense, Iserbyt was able to follow the intense move. The other riders flagged behind, and after 3 laps, the two riders had a 9-second lead on the rest of the MvdP chasers.
While Pidcock’s initial attack did not shed Iserbyt, his sustained power did. After the first flyover, Pidcock kind of just dropped Iserbyt. At Pit 1, Pidcock was now in solo second, while Iserbyt dropped back with Van Aert, Aerts and Vanthourenhout. Belgian Champ Sweeck flagged from the group’s pace.
“I had strong legs and I thought, ‘Let’s see where I end up if I accelerate,'” Pidcock said. “We still had to do 5 laps, but I could continue my acceleration, because my legs were that good. I was surprised because I have been sick all week. I barely was on my bike the past few days. But I wanted to race with the elite riders and I’m immediately on the podium.”
Although he is just 25 years old, Van Aert was added to the Belgian team in part to play the role of wily vet. He had, after all, won 3 Elite world championships by the age of 23 and had never not finished on a Worlds podium during his cyclocross career.
Midway through Lap 4, Van Aert stepped up to play the role of good teammate to that Belgian team. He took the lead spot heading into the first climb of the steep berm and led the chase of Pidcock. Aerts sat near his wheel, while Iserbyt dropped off the pace.
Van Aert’s effort was valiant, but at the end of Lap 4, Pidcock still led Aerts by 6 seconds, Vanthourenhout by 10 and Van Aert and Sweeck by 15. Iserbyt, at this point, appeared beaten.
Pidcock’s power on Sunday seemed perfectly suited for the first third of the Worlds course. As he did the lap before, the British star extended his lead before reaching the steep berm run-up. Aerts then erased much of the advantage, but on the flats leading to the finish, Pidcock again extended his lead. It was at 11 seconds on Aerts with 2 laps to go.
In the penultimate lap, Van Aert bridged to Aerts to renew their battle from Bogense, this time, at least for now, for third. Van Aert’s podium bid ended, however, when he suffered a flat tire late in the lap and dropped off Aerts’ pace. Meanwhile, heading into the bell lap, Pidcock’s lead was at just 7 seconds. There was still a chance for the first Belgian to finish second.
Fortunately for Pidcock, his strongest part of the course started the lap, allowing him to extend his advantage to a more comfortable 10 seconds. Once through the berms with space on Aerts, he was able to power back to the finish to wrap up an impressive second-place ride.
“Today I’m the second-best cyclocross rider in the world. That’s unbelievable,” Pidcock said.
Aerts took third after giving everything he had to catch up with Pidcock.
“I think I went over my limit in the first lap,” Aerts said (translated) “It was immediately going very fast. Van der Poel went all-in immediately, and I already had problems to follow. I had to recover from that for a bit. Today was one of the toughest races of the season, especially because of the high pace from the start.”
Van Aert finished fourth and Sweeck fifth.
“I’m very disappointed,” Van Aert told Sporza. “It’s the first time that I’m not on the World Championships podium. I maybe didn’t expect that it would work out today, but I was close after all. I secretly had hoped for a 9th podium on my 9th World Championships. It was a nice statistic I had. If bad luck holds you back, then that’s painful. I rather would have lost against Toon Aerts after an exciting last lap. Now it was out of my control.”
Stephen Hyde (United States) led the North Americans in 16th. Curtis White (United States) finished 18th, Michael van den Ham (Canada) 24th, Kerry Werner (United States) 26th and Cameron Jette (Canada) 37th.
Full results are below.
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Elite Men Results: 2020 Cyclocross World Championships, Dübendorf Switzerland
|Rank||BIB||Last Name||First Name||Country||Result|
|1||1||VAN DER POEL||Mathieu||NED||1:08:52|
|11||2||VAN DER HAAR||Lars||NED||1:14:48|
|15||5||VAN DER POEL||David||NED||1:17:14|
|24||37||VAN DEN HAM||Michael||CAN|