Van der Poel’s Cyclo-Cross Seasons Is a Perfect 10

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) concluded the first part of his 2023-24 cyclocross season with his tenth consecutive victory, and fourth in a World Cup event, when he won Sunday’s race at Zonhoven by a margin of 20 seconds over fellow Dutchman Joris Nieuwenhuis (Baloise Trek). Belgium’s Laurens Sweeck (Crelan-Corendon) completed the podium, finishing 22 seconds behind the winner.

With long-time World Cup leader Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) finishing sixth, at 1:11, and having missed the previous race, at Hulst, due to illness, the World Cup standings have tightened considerably. Iserbyt now has a lead of 295 to 270 points over Nieuwenhuis, with the impressive 22-year-old Pim Ronhaar, who finished fourth at Zonhoven, in third place, at 260 points.
But the real story of the cyclocross season has been van der Poel’s dominance, not only because of the winning streak but also due to the ease with which he has been winning and the margins of victory.

The 20-second win in Zonhoven was one of the smallest margins in his winning streak, though his victory was again never really in doubt. But this time he left his winning kick for late, taking the lead not until the fourth of eight laps, rather than in the first lap as had been his habit. He said after the race that the bitter cold had been a factor in his change of tactics.

“I’m super happy with how this part of the cyclocross season went, but I’m also happy that I can go to Spain and work on the form again,” he said. “I wanted to see how the race developed. It was cold and took me a while before I got into my own rhythm. It’s a tough race, and I didn’t want to waste too much energy today.”

Mathieu Van der Poel
Mathieu van der Poel demonstrated his unrivaled talent in cyclo-cross by clinching his fourth consecutive World Cup victory in Zonhoven. © Profimedia

The upshot is, though van der Poel would not say it, his superiority to the other ‘cross riders is so great that he can do as he pleases, ride from the front or wait until he feels like it to put his rivals away. He began his winning move on an uphill stretch of sand and had a lead of 12 seconds when he descended the sand section. He ended lap 4 with a lead of 25 seconds, stretched it to 32 seconds by lap 6 and then coasted home.

Van der Poel has had no serious rivals this season, including the two riders who’d been expected to give him serious competition, Wout van Aert (Visma – Lease a Bike) and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers). However, van Aert and Pidcock are using the ‘cross season to prepare for this year’s road racing, including the Grand Tours and the Paris Olympics. While van Aert has raced creditably, winning one race and finishing second (behind van der Poel) four times, Pidcock has had a nightmarish winter, crashing several times and missing two races due to illness.

Both van der Poel and van Aert now leave for training in Spain and will meet again in the World Cup race in Benidorm on January 21. That will be van Aert’s final cyclocross race of the season. After Benidorm, van der Poel has scheduled two more ‘cross races, the X20 at Hamme on January 27 and a World Cup event in Hoogerheide the following day. Then, on February 4, barring accident or illness, he will successfully defend his world championship title in the Czech town of Tábor.