He has won nine Elite Men’s races while hitting the podium in countless others, including a third place finish in the Belgian National Championship. Even those numbers are deceptive because when you look at how well he places against other individuals, no Elite rider has his number in their cross-hairs. World Cup leader Kevin Pauwels? Van Aert outplaced him eight races to two. Cyclocross legend Sven Nys? The young gun took six leads to two, including the infamous race at Koppenbergcross where a lapped teammate interfered with the final sprint. Even the “on-fire” Tom Meeusen lost eight races and won two in the head-to-head count, and he will not be allowed to race at Worlds due to an ongoing doping investigation.
That leads me to my next point: not only is Van Aert a star in his own right, but with Nys struggling and Stybar out with injuries, there is a vacuum at the highest level, a condition ripe for a changing of the guard from old to young. In all likelihood, Van Aert will find another situation down the road where the stars aligned for his talent, but the 2015 World Championships meet a lot of interesting conditions where he could leave a serious mark on cyclocross. This should go without saying that we would love to see his talent remain in cyclocross; the allure of road has already captured some of the past superstars like Lars Boom and Zdeněk Štybar.
In the end, however, the gauntlet was first thrown by Van der Poel. The two riders are young, but already have a rich rivalry that should last for years. When the Dutch rider threw his name into the Elite race, anything but Van Aert following suit would have looked like a case of cherry-picking. The young Dutch and Belgian riders have battled each other eight times this season, and although Van der Poel might have plenty of wins in the past, the 2014-15 season belonged to Van Aert, who was able to best his rival seven times. Van der Poel’s second place finish at the BPost Series at Ronse was the only instance in the year were he outplayed Van Aert, who had a seventh place finish.
The original decision by Van der Poel to leave the U23 race was more contestable, if only because of the earlier point that he has never worn the World Championship Jersey as a U23 rider (he has won multiple Junior titles, including the 2013 race in Louisville).
Still, despite a few podium finishes last season, he shocked the world this year at Superprestige Gieten, outmatching Lars van der Haar in a sprint and handedly beating third place Nys. He followed that up with an impressive five more wins. But even more impressive than his victories is his consistency. His worst showing at the top level was a sixth place finish in the third round of the Superpresitge. Otherwise, an off day meant he barely missed the podium.