Dominant van der Poel Wins Sixth Cyclo-cross World Championship

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

To no one’s surprise, Mathieu van der Poel won his sixth cyclo-cross world title in Sunday’s UCI World Cyclo-cross Championships by surging to the front with his first pedal stroke and gradually pulling away from his rivals. His Dutch compatriot Joris Nieuwenhuis capped off an excellent year by taking an impressive second place, 37 seconds behind the winner. Belgium’s Michael Vanthourenhout finished third, 1:06 adrift.

The race on a very muddy and wind-blown course in Tabor, Czech Republic, was disrupted just seconds after the start when the two-time European and World Cup champion Lars van den Haar slipped off a pedal and caused several podium favourites to lose time and position. The hard-luck van den Haar eventually worked his way back into podium contention and was in fifth and gaining on the riders in front of him when his chain popped off the derailleur and he had to go on foot to replace the bike. He eventually finished 15th, at 3:32.

But van der Poel had smooth sailing for the entire race though it took him a while to shake off the stubborn Nieuwenhuis who ran a brilliant tactical race, actually making up time on his imperious countryman on the last lap. But after the first lap, van der Poel’s victory was never in doubt as he led Nieuwenhuis by 8 seconds and a group of three riders by 24 seconds at the start of lap 2 and increased his lead on his pursuers on every lap but the last.

Van der Poel had never lost a race on the Tabor course, and even the unusually muddy conditions and the 26 kph wind could not keep him from winning the 162nd cyclo-cross victory of his career. But though the result was never in doubt, it was clear that on a track that generally creates large time gaps, the 29-year-old Dutchman still carried in his legs the efforts of his magnificent ‘cross season in which he had won 10 races in succession and 12 of the 13 in which he had competed. His only loss came in Benidorm when he finished fifth, 12 seconds behind the victorious Wout van Aert, after being slowed by a crash on the final lap.

“It would have been a shame to miss out on the world title after such a season,” he told journalists after the race. “But a race still has to be run, and the top favourite has often not won. I mainly rode very controlled and never took many risks. Stones were thrown up in many places. I tried to take those sections as carefully as possible and pushed on where I could.”

He went on to say that this could have been his last cyclo-cross world title because he would be focusing more on road racing in the future, just as cyclo-cross rivals van Aert and Tom Pidcock are doing this year. Both were absent from Tabor. “Apart from the world title and the fun, there is not much left for me to gain in cyclo-cross,” van der Poel said. “My focus is increasingly shifting to the road. ‘Cross in the winter is something that takes a lot of energy. If it turns out that I can perform even better on the road by skipping cyclo-cross, then I will do that.”

He added that the final decision on his cyclo-cross future would be made with his Alpecin-Deceuninck team. “We will know more about my road programme in two weeks but not yet about next winter,” he said with a laugh. One factor in that decision could be his chance to match Erik De Vlaeminck’s record of seven cyclo-cross world titles.

As popular as van der Poel’s victory was in Tabor, the Czech crowd saved its biggest cheers for its native hero Zdeněk Štybar. The 38-year-old three-time world champion was riding in the final race of his career and was cheered on for the entire course. There were tears in his eyes as he crossed the finish line, in 31st place, 7:02 behind van der Poel.

“I crashed [on] the last lap,” he explained afterwards. “On the one hand, I could enjoy [the race] a little longer but on the other hand, it was a shame because I just got my second wind and was able to continue. In fact, I was suddenly forced to really enjoy the spectators. That was incredible. I really shed tears on that last lap.”

Van der Poel also paid tribute to Štybar, saying after the race: “He is a super nice guy. We often trained together. I hope he trains a little more so we can go on some more rides.”