Van Aert Turns Tables on Van der Poel, Puts End to his Winning Streak

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

Cyclo-cross fans got a reminder on Sunday of how thrilling their sport can be when its best riders are in good form, as Wout van Aert (Visma–Lease a Bike) won a tight and dramatic race in Benidorm in Spain, ending arch-rival Mathieu van der Poel’s astonishing 10-race winning streak. The reigning world champion suffered from some uncharacteristic bad luck, which he had been spared during his streak, dropping a chain in the first of nine laps and then crashing on lap 8, which put him at a disadvantage from which he could not recover. The Alpecin-Deceuninck rider ultimately finished fifth, 12 seconds behind the winner.

Van Aert began his winning surge shortly after van der Poel crashed. At the start of the final lap, he and the surprising second-place finisher, Michael Vanthourenhout (Pauwels Sauzen–Bingoal), had a lead of 11 seconds on a group that included the other member of the so-called Big Three, Tom Pidcock (INEOS-Grenadiers). The Belgian finally dropped Vanthourenhout on the final climb of the race and soon had a substantial lead. But there was more drama to come. He chose to go over the two low barriers on foot rather than bike-hopping, as he had done before, but he lost his balance when jumping back on his bike and crashed. His victory was never in danger, but the winning margin over Vanthourenhout, 3 seconds, was closer than it should have been. Thibau Nys (Baloise Trek Lions) finished third, at 7 seconds.

“There’s a little bit of pain on my wrist [from the crash], but I think it’s meant to be,” the winner joked after the race. “My mother broke her wrist yesterday. My parents got married on the 13th of July and I had number 13 [on my jersey], so I thought it’s my day.”

To this observer, it seemed clear that he and van der Poel raced as a tandem throughout the race, allowing the other to race in their slipstream upon request. That collaboration ended when the reigning world champion slipped off his bike at a crucial point in the race. Van Aert suggested after the race that he had felt strong enough to look forward to another mano a mano with his friendly enemy.

Wout Van Aert
Wout van Aert (Visma–Lease a Bike) won a tight and dramatic race in Benidorm in Spain. © Profimedia

“I felt quite strong today, and obviously Mathieu was strong too, and had some bad luck,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it didn’t come down to a battle, but still, when he crashed in the final I still had to beat all the others. That wasn’t easy but I’m happy I was able to do that. It’s always a sweet feeling to win, but especially with the good legs today.” The victory was van Aert’s first cyclo-cross World Cup win and last ‘cross race of the 2023-24 season.

As for van der Poel, he of course regretted the misfortunes that cost him a chance at victory. “In the beginning, my chain came off and I had to chase, but that was okay in itself,” he said after the race. “But on the penultimate lap, after the sandpit, I hit the cutting a bit too much with my shoulder and I knew it was over.”

Following the dropped chain in lap 1, he trailed the leaders by 28 seconds, but he had no trouble reaching the front, where he and van Aert took turns leading the race. However, he expressed his unhappiness with the curvy and narrow Benidorm course, which he believes makes it impossible to pull away from the competition.

“In my opinion, there [don’t] need to be more courses like this in cyclo-cross,” he said. “I said the same last year when I won. The public obviously makes up for a lot, but purely in terms of the course it’s definitely not something I need. I do understand that it is fantastic for the viewers, because it will always be a battle to the finish, as it is almost impossible to get rid of each other.”

Perhaps he is also a “mudder,” a term used for racehorses that run their best on wet ground, and had trouble with the very hard, fast ground at Benidorm, where there was no deep mud and no deep sand. In any case, riders gearing up for the cyclocross world championships in the Czech town of Tabor in early February – which do not include van Aert and Pidcock – might be heartened by van der Poel’s setback. From the way he fought back, after his crash, on the final lap to take fifth place should remind them that he is still the best cyclocross rider in the world, even if he wasn’t on the day.