So it was only right and just that the 2023 UCI Cyclocross Elite Men’s World Championship, held Sunday in the Dutch village of Hoogerheide, turned into a thrilling mano a mano between the two that the Cyclocross magazine rightly called “a duel for the ages.” That the 10-lap race was not decided until the sprint finish, 1 hour, 7 minutes, 20 seconds after the start, and that van der Poel won because van Aert made a simple tactical error, tells you all you need to know about the kind of nail-biter the race was.
The strategy of the Dutch team was to turn it into a two-man race, and van der Poel’s teammate Lars van der Haar set a blistering pace in the first lap until he and the two favourites had distanced themselves from the rest of the field. Van der Haar then dropped back – he would finish a brave fourth – and van Aert and van der Poel spent the rest of the race alone with each other.
The gap to the field was 8 seconds after the first lap. It would grow to as much as 23 seconds and then decrease again as the two leaders fought a tense tactical battle all the way to the end. Fortunately, for the riders, the course had dried out overnight – it had been damp and muddy for the Elite Women’s Championship race the previous day – and all the two riders had to contend with were deep ruts, tricky corners and each other.
Van der Poel was considered the slight favourite as he was riding in his home country on a course designed by his father, and he was definitely the fastest over the tall, uphill barriers. The two men traded jabs and counterpunches, as they sprinted when possible to try and put distance between the other. But they entered the final sprint over about 250 meters of paved road.
Van Aert had probably expected his rival to begin his final attack at the barriers, which came just a few turns before the pavement. But van der Poel simply stayed on van Aert’s wheel, intent on being behind him for the sprint finish. When he stood up and took off, he caught the Belgian by surprise, from which he never recovered. “In retrospect, I had a better chance if I had started the sprint immediately,” van Aert told journalists after the race. “But I didn’t, so that’s my fault. Mathieu was the strongest in the race.”
Van der Poel called the victory “for sure in my Top 3 nicest victories and I am going to remember this for a long time!” He also paid respect to his defeated opponent, saying: “We both bring each other to a higher level, but it’s also the sport—I’ve never seen anything like this in cyclocross. Sometimes, we are a bit worried about each other but after our careers [are over], we will be really proud of all the medals we’ve had. It’s a super cool story we are writing. The road season is coming already and then it will be for sure against him again.”
This was van der Poel’s fifth cyclocross world championship win; van Aert has won three and finished second four times. The Belgian rider Eli Iserbyt finished third, 12 seconds behind the winner, with van der Haar another second adrift.