Sometimes you watch bike races that are so perfect, it’s hard to believe they are happening in real time. It is almost like the riders have rehearsed how the race will pan out, planned how they will take the corners and have set parameters of when to attack so the right people will be at the front of the race at the right time. Until the very last moment, the 2023 men's Cyclocross World Championships was one of these races.
Everything went to the script. It was a hectic and fast start, but Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert both got away cleanly. They didn’t hit the front of straight away – they never do – instead, they settled into a rhythm, following the lines of others, Van Aert a little behind and Van der Poel up front. It took just three minutes of this type of racing until the Dutch rider launched first his attack, one that would shape the rest of the elite men's World Championships. When Van der Poel made that move up and over the bridge, almost like a magnet, Van Aert was drawn out of the wheels behind. As they punched over the long drag on the course, the Belgian was the only one, like always, able to follow the explosive moves of Van der Poel. From then, they were away, leaving nothing but tyre tracks in the mud for their rivals to follow.
As the two riders battled on, huge swathes of people lined the side of the course, turning what is normally just an unassuming field in the small village of Hoogerheide into a booming stadium hosting a headline act. Van der Poel and Van Aert were the performers to an adoring audience who screamed, shouted, cheered, threw their beers and ate their frites. Like they have been for the last 11 years of their careers, the rival duo were simply a cut above the rest, like two deities of ancient Greece waging a sporting duel that will go down for the ages.
Every pedal stroke each of them made had a purpose. It was closer to art than it was cycling, both riding in unison, taking turns behind one another, gracefully finessing the corners, dismounting and remounting with exemplary technique, taking each rut with the perfect balance of control and relaxation, letting their bikes take the lead underneath them, controlling them as if they weren’t being ridden, but instead as if they were an extension of each rider's body. It was like Van der Poel and Van Aert were born to do the same thing; both with a gift that the other riders in the race just don’t possess. When one attacked, the other could match it; neither made a mistake, both riding close to technically perfect races right until the very last metres of the race.
But in cycling, a winner must always be decided. Generally, there are two reasons why one person is crowned victor; they are the strongest rider in the race physically, or they are the one who makes the least amount of mistakes. At the 2023 Cyclocross World Championships, Wout van Aert lost because of the latter. He made just one, painstaking error at the most important part of the race.
Everyone, especially Van Aert himself as Van der Poel’s closest challenger, knows that the Dutch rider has a better explosive power than his Belgian rival. As the two riders came towards the final, long finishing straight of the race, it was crucial that Van Aert didn’t let Van der Poel use that punchy acceleration to his advantage. The Belgian needed to keep the pace high, and not let Van der Poel get the jump. However, in a split second, he made a mistake. In the final one hundred metres, he slowed down and for the very final time in the race, looked over his shoulder. This gave Van der Poel the perfect springboard to launch his sprint, to get the gap, and to snatch the rainbow jersey.
“It was just like in every race, Mathieu jumps a bit faster as he is better at it,” Van Aert said after the race. He explained that he’d expected Van der Poel to jump earlier at the barriers, launching his attack sooner. Van Aert was so focussed on this, he said that he almost forgot to ride his own sprint. From Van der Poel, it was the perfect move, and a signifier of his maturity as an athlete. In cyclocross races in the past, the Dutch rider has made the mistake of going too early, too soon, but this year he waited until the moment was right, and was rewarded with the greatest prize: a rainbow jersey.
But despite Van der Poel standing on the top step of the podium in the end, the winner of the 2023 Cyclocross World Championships is almost secondary to the greater narrative of the day’s racing. The real story was about a decade-long duel that hasn’t been seen before in cyclocross. It was about these two riders creating a moment in the sport’s history. Both those who were at the race that day in person and those who were watching on TV were honoured to be witnessing this generation of bike riders who display the very finest of what the sport has to offer. Their flawless technical skills, incredible physicality and the history between them, combined with the roars and atmosphere of the crowd, made the 2023 men's Cyclocross World Championships one of the best in memory. Wout and Mathieu, thank you for the entertainment.