Van der Poel Wins Ring Out 2023, Usher in 2024

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

To paraphrase the Who: “Welcome to the new year, same as the old year,” because Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceunick) opened 2024 the way he closed 2023 by blowing away the competition in a cyclo-cross race. Even a rain-swamped and muddy track on the first day of the year couldn’t slow his irresistible march to cyclo-cross legend status as he won the X20 Trofee Baal 2024 by an impressive 1:55 over arch-rival Wout van Aert (Visma – Lease a Bike). The 22-year-old Pim Ronhaar (Baloise Trek) was third, a further 50 seconds adrift.

The first cyclo-cross race of the year was different from the preceding races only in the relative absence of crashes and other incidents and in the surprisingly poor performance by the third member of the so-called Big Three, Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers), who started like the proverbial house on fire but then faded badly in the middle of the 6-lap race. He finally made up ground on tiring riders towards the end of the race to finish 12th, 5:24 behind van der Poel, for whom the race was apparently little more than a walk in the park.’

“I enjoyed it, it is always a fun ‘cross that suits me well,” he said after the race on Eurosport. “This is the most fun as a cyclo-cross rider, a very technical course with those deep ruts. It was difficult, but the fairest and most fun.” He went on to explain that he followed van Aert’s fast opening pace, took over the lead on the first lap and “had a nice gap again and then rode fairly clean. It was a nice day.” The victory made it 8 wins in 8 races of the cyclo-cross winter season.

Again, van Aert had no choice but to praise van der Poel’s superiority – though he also admitted that a mistake he made on a particularly wet and muddy stretch opened the door for the Dutchman. “To be honest, I was surprised I was so far behind, Mathieu was super strong,” he said. “I had a good start and I think I owe it to myself to try. I put my energy in the first two laps, made a mistake, and then had to go back to my own pace. It was the start of a one-man show.”

Mathieu van der Poel
Van der Poel opened 2024 the way he closed 2023 by blowing away the competition in a cyclo-cross race. © Profimedia

Ronhaar, who seems destined for a very successful ‘cross career, stayed with van Aert for as long as he could, then raced at his own pace to easily preserve his podium finish over Baloise Trek teammate Lars van der Haar. One could not blame young Ronhaar if he didn’t want to get too close to van Aert during the race for the two were involved in one of the many incidents that marked the final cyclo-cross race of 2023, the World Cup race at Hulst, which van der Poel won by 0:12 over Joris Nieuwenhuis (also Baloise Trek), with van der Haar coming in third, at 0:20. Van Aert did not finish on the podium in that race because he and Ronhaar came together on a sharp curve in lap 2 and he went down, breaking his chain. He later suffered a flat and was at one point sitting in 27th, 1:20 behind van der Poel, but he was the fastest rider on the last three laps of the race to finish fifth, at 0:43, 13 seconds behind… Ronhaar.

Ronhaar said after the race that he spoke to van Aert after the finish and that “he wasn’t very happy. I understand that, of course, but I think he would have done the same to me.” Van Aert denied being angry, saying: “On this course, you could lose a lot of time if you weren’t in a good position. So I wanted to move up as quickly as possible. I also decided to get involved in the debates about positions. And I lost.” He added that to say that he was angry was not accurate. “I felt that I was riding well. Then the competitive spirit surfaces again and you hope to do better than fifth place. I think ‘disappointed’ better expresses what I feel.”

Pidcock – who has suffered a string of crashes and breakdowns this winter – crashed in the very first turn (as he had done in Gavere) and broke his bike. He had to run with the bike for quite a distance before getting a replacement and was way behind when he finally got back in the saddle. He ultimately finished 25th, 3:44 behind the winner.

Finally, the most disturbing incident in the race involved van der Poel and will be a subject of conversation for some time. On the final lap, with the victory well in hand and not far from the finish, van der Poel rode close to a section of spectators and spit on them. He said after the race that those spectators had been heckling and booing him since the warm-ups and that he was “done with that.” He refused to say what the hecklers had said to him but noted, “These were not things that belong in sport. Booing is not appropriate for anyone. After a while, it was enough, also for me.” He was fined 250 Swiss francs by the UCI race commissioners for the act.

But I wonder if his response was appropriate. Heckling fans have been a part of sports for a long time, and one can hardly imagine a sports event without them. However, they are rare in racing, whether on bikes, on foot or on skis. It’s one thing to root against a team – who doesn’t want to boo Manchester United? – but in events in which individuals test themselves against others, it shows a profound lack of understanding and respect, especially when you consider what van der Poel is in the process of accomplishing. But if it happens again, I’d advise him to ignore these wanna-be hooligans, to show them how little their tantrums mean to him.