While it is too early to classify the rivalry between Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard as the stuff of legends – and there is a chance that before he is through, the Slovenian will be embroiled in high-drama duels with several riders (think Remco Evenepoel), given his boundless ambition and hunger for victories – the battle between Jumbo-Visma’s Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, of Alpecin-Deceuninck, has already become part of the growing lore of modern road racing.
The recent Paris-Roubaix was a prime example. Going into Sunday’s race, they were widely regarded as the favourites to win that legendary Monument, and it was expected that the race would add another thrilling chapter to their storied personal competition. And so it turned out, with van Aert suffering a puncture just 15 km from the finish, allowing van der Poel to solo for a stunning victory and leaving the Belgian devastated.
Though van Aert is Belgian and van der Poel is Dutch, the two men have a great deal in common, such as having been born four months apart and growing up in the same Flanders region. They have been racing against each other – in cyclocross and road – since 2012 when van der Poel beat van Aert by 8 seconds in the Cyclo-cross World Championships in Koksijde. Since then the two have faced each other in about 200 races, in both road racing and cyclocross. They have dominated the latter discipline for over a decade, with van der Poel winning five world championships and van Aert three.
The 2023 cyclocross championship in Hoogerheide was yet another astonishing head-to-head battle, with the two riding away from the rest of the field and engaging in a breathtaking cat-and-mouse game until van Aert made an uncharacteristic mistake at the start of the short sprint to the finish by allowing van der Poel to drop behind him. When the Dutchman started his sprint, van Aert reacted late and could not catch up. Cyclocross magazine called it “a duel for the ages,” and that is no doubt what cycling historians will call it long after the two men have hung up their cycling shoes.
This year the ongoing duel has become a hot media subject, as fans are wondering out loud if the two men are close friends off the bike or if they like each other at all. The consensus is that they are not friends, on or off the bike, but have enormous respect for each other. As former van Aert coach Niels Albert told Cyclingnews, “They have never been close. They would never really talk to each other at races, and especially not away from races. But there is not a bad feeling. I don’t think Wout ever finished a race and started shouting ‘Mathieu this, Mathieu that’. There is a level of respect for what the other one does.”
However, at the 2020 Gent-Wevelgem, racing tensions turned personal after the two riders concentrated on each other to such an extent that van der Poel’s current teammate Mads Pedersen was able to take advantage of their rivalry to win. That did not sit well with van Aert who said after the race, “There was only one rider who was really targeting me. Apparently, he preferred to see me lose rather than making a chance to win the race himself.” To which van der Poel replied, “It’s a weird reaction from Wout. It’s a bit shallow to say I raced to make him lose because I always ride to win the race.”
That is certainly true. If any rider in the peloton matches Pogačar’s irrepressible passion for victories, it is van der Poel. One important reason may be his French grandfather, the great Raymond Poulidor, who had the misfortune of racing at the same time as two riders who were just a little bit greater, Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx. As a result, Poulidor was referred to as “The Eternal Second” because he never won the Tour de France, finishing second three times and third five times. It is only armchair speculation but the grandson may be motivated, at least partly, by a desire to correct the family record.
That desire has served van der Poel very well in one-day races. In the last nine Monuments he has entered, he registered three wins, two second places and two thirds, a marvellous record for these brutal challenges. Van Aert’s record in these races is almost as good: one win, two seconds and three third places in the last eleven Monuments he raced in. However, he has won an astonishing seven of the last 17 Classic one-day races he entered.
But it is unfair, and pointless, to compare the two riders by their won-lost statistics, because they have so far chosen slightly different roads to success, especially regarding the greatest race of all, the Tour de France. Van der Poel has only raced in two Tours so far, in 2021 and last year, finishing neither race and winning one stage.
Van Aert, on the other hand, has run in the last four Tours, finishing in the top 20 in each of them. More importantly, he also won last year’s Škoda Green Jersey, has taken nine individual stages and one team time trial and was instrumental in helping Jonas Vingegaard defeat Pogačar in the race for the 2022 yellow jersey. What their records do tell us is that they are the best all-around cyclists in the world and have added joy and passion to the sport. And van der Poel is aware of what their rivalry means to them and to competitive cycling. “We both bring each other to a higher level… 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.”
And the story goes on. In the caption of a photo taken at this year’s Paris-Roubaix, van Aert wrote, “Unfinished business.” That race is a year away. Be sure to mark it on your calendar. Fireworks guaranteed.