On Sunday, Denmark’s Mads Pedersen won a drizzly, muddy edition of Gent-Wevelgem. He did so partly because he’s a magnificent cyclist, but also because the two strongest riders in the race rolled casually over the line seven seconds behind him, without either having launched a sustained effort after passing the flamme rouge.
For the preceding five minutes or so, Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel had effectively taken part in their own private race; one in which the seven other riders who’d made the post-Kemmelberg selection were only tangentially involved. So absorbed were the Belgo-Dutch double-act with this internecine wrangle that they ended up marking each other out of contention, apparently dismissing a group full of classics superstars as an irrelevance to their personal duel.
Sure, that’s overstating it a bit, but few could have failed to be engrossed by the psychodrama playing out between two riders whose careers are so entwined that it’s becoming hard to tell the story of one without mentioning the other. As far as road cycling is concerned, Gent-Wevelgem was arguably the highest-profile flashpoint – so far – of their ongoing cold war, but WVA v MVDP is a saga that’s likely to have top billing in the cycling theatre for years to come.
Let’s take it back to 3.9km from the finish line in Wevelgem. Van Aert, having just been chased down by van der Poel, follows a big counter-attack from Stefan Küng, dragging Florian Sénéchal and Alberto Bettiol with him. Van der Poel brings it back almost single-handedly; Van Aert stews and sits up. The die is cast.
Then, with 1.8km to go, Bettiol, Sénéchal and Matteo Trentin launch as a trio. Van Aert initially moves to follow but doesn’t bother once he realises van der Poel isn’t in the move. Van der Poel, meanwhile, dodges the call to action when he sees his Flandrian nemesis isn’t chasing.
Four hundred metres later, it’s clear the race-winning move has been made. Behind, Van Aert and van der Poel sit on their saddles, eyeing one another, seemingly completely disinterested in what everyone else is doing.
So Pedersen simply decides to bridge over and win the race. The star cross’d lovers indolently watch him go, as if the 2019 world champion is nothing more than an uninvited fly escaping a room through an open window. Van Aert and van der Poel, frankly, are not concerned with the likes of Pedersen: who cares about rainbow stripes when they’ve got each other to worry about?
Even when Küng, John Degenkolb and Yves Lampaert move half-heartedly to distance the pair in search of minor places with around 800 metres left, Van Aert and van der Poel don’t deem it worth the effort to go with them. Instead, they remain together as if tied by rope.
What a spectacle it is. The headline acts and potentially the most gifted classics riders of their generation reduced to a vindictive squabble for eighth and ninth place, like a pair of bar-room brawlers trading sozzled blows in the street long after everyone else has gone home. In professional cycling, it rarely gets any more visceral than this.
Post-race, the Belgian TV cameras went in search of Van Aert. They found him simmering while putting on some extra layers to ward away the Flanders chill, a carefully neutral expression pasted across his face. It failed to conceal the anger clearly raging beneath the surface. Few riders in the peloton can frown quite like Van Aert; there’s just something inherently frowny about the set of his brow.
It was only a matter of time before he confirm the resentment we could all see.
“There was really only one who looked at me the whole time,” said Van Aert in a Sporza interview not much later. “Van der Poel, yes. Apparently he would rather that I lost than that he won himself. He may have forgotten that I already won a lot and at some point could also gamble. Now we both have nothing.”
Look what you’ve done to me, Mathieu. Look what you’ve done to us.
Van der Poel, for his part, was more conciliatory but no less spiky.
“I find it a bit low to say that I rode to make him lose. I always ride to win,” said the Dutchman. “I don’t blame him either. I understand it too, because I actually went for him a few times. But again: I do that to win. He is simply one of the best riders in the world. This is just racing.”
Just racing? Hardly. This pair has been going at it for what seems like aeons.
As everyone surely knows at this point, it all started in cyclocross, where no-one else has ever been able to lay a finger on them in a competitive sense. Their back-and-forth dominance was a major factor in the discipline shifting from thriving subculture to mainstream preoccupation within the cycling world.
These days, Van Aert and van der Poel have simply changed scenery and are beginning to put themselves centre stage on the road, particularly (but far from exclusively) on the cobbles and farm roads of north-west Europe. We’re entering their era now, a new age of protagonism beyond The Sagan Years. And it’s all the more dramatic given the interlaced origins of the sport’s newest show-stoppers.
It’s been a long time since there was a relationship like this at the zenith of the men’s peloton. Cycling eras of the past have come to be defined by their headline rivalries: Coppi v Bartali, Lemond v Hinault and, fittingly, Anquetil v Poulidor. What was the most recent – and genuine – rivalry that was truly played out at the top of men’s cycling? Ullrich and Armstrong, briefly? Froome and Wiggins, even more briefly?
In 30 or 40 years time, then, is it Van Aert v van der Poel that observers will use to brand the 2020s? There’s nothing to suggest any real malice between the two lowlanders, but in a sport that can lack interpersonal edge among those in the highest echelons, they have provided a dynamic that cycling’s media and fans can’t afford not to lean into.
Where this goes from Gent-Wevelgem, however, is anyone’s guess. They are both still only 25 at the time of writing; perhaps their paths will diverge and render talk of rivalry obsolete.
Van Aert has shown he can climb mountains. Recently he has looked more versatile than van der Poel: is his future in GC, tapping out the rhythm of the damned on the side of an Alp? One might hope not. Given Wout’s size, the stage racer’s diet would seem a needless sacrifice when there are cobbles to be ploughed, bergs to be ground into dust and valleys of death to be hopped.
For van der Poel, the future looks more preordained. Though extravagantly gifted, he’s yet to prove he can ascend with the best on the road. Sure, a two-minute grind up a muur is right in his wheelhouse, but his frame doesn’t look right for the more challenging hills and he hasn’t shown a huge amount of interest in stage-racing (yet). We know he is keen to remain at the forefront of cyclocross and mountain-biking, but with every passing year he seems to become more of a classics specialist.
The good news is that we don’t have long to wait for the next big showdown between these behemoths, which will come at the Tour of Flanders, exactly a week after Gent-Wevelgem (if it actually goes ahead, that is). They’ll be met with a more intimidating field on this occasion, but it’s not hard to make an argument that they will be the race’s star attractions. Only a fool would bet against them.
Unless, of course, they both make a reduced final selection over the Oude Kwaremont. At which point, should they begin to seek an enemy’s wheel, we may see their preoccupation with each other etch itself even more indelibly into the sport’s folklore.
Featured image: Flowizm via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Licence, edited by KONM