Analysis: Is the Van der Poel-Van Aert rivalry stretching to breaking point?

The mental battle at E3 fed into the broader narrative of a contest that’s looking increasingly one-sided

Clock11:45, Saturday 23rd March 2024
Mathieu van der Poel is pulling away from Wout van Aert in the power balance of their great rivalry

© Getty Images

Mathieu van der Poel is pulling away from Wout van Aert in the power balance of their great rivalry

It’s always dangerous to read too much into language used non-natively, but it was nevertheless too hard to ignore Mathieu van der Poel’s choice of words when describing his attempts to keep Wout van Aert at bay in the E3 Saxo Classic.

“I wanted to crack him on the Karnemelkbeekstraat, and that’s what happened I think.”

‘Crack him’.

There is, of course, a physical element to cracking. But in cycling, cracking also comes with a significant psychological implication. To crack is for the legs and the head to fall apart in one go.

So while Van der Poel sensed an opportunity to drain the legs of Van Aert on that penultimate climb, what he was also doing was draining his spirit.

The language used may have been accidental, but it feels significant, not least in the context of the greatest rivalry of the modern era, in which the two best Classics and cyclo-cross riders of the past decade have shared a polite but lukewarm relationship.

All the great sporting rivalries are woven with a psychological narrative, of blows traded in the mind. For 20 gripping kilometres on Friday, we saw, as much anything, a mental match.

“His finish line was at my wheel,” said Van der Poel, in another subtle but revealing comment. “I knew he must be doing everything he could do get back to me and I knew he must be on the limit.”

What stands out here is Van der Poel’s mastery of the situation. He has the measure of his opponent’s mindset and is in complete tactical control – as he appeared to be all day.

Van der Poel was, of course, in the far more enviable and luxurious position. However, it’s not unthinkable that someone in that situation might feel like the hunted. He’d been given a big head start, and yet he had almost squandered it as he hit the Karnemelkbeekstraat, with Van Aert breathing down his neck. If the catch had been made the tables would have turned.

And yet, Van der Poel betrayed no signs of nerves or panic. He even made another intriguing comment: "Wout rode defensively today, which was a pity." This is someone who relishes the direct combat, inviting it on. In that light, that rear wheel he mentions starts to feel like something being dangled in front of Van Aert in a toying, almost taunting way, like the red flag to a bull.

Again, it’s worth stressing that this is all inferred, rather than implied by Van der Poel, but it feeds into - and perhaps is fed by - the overarching trajectory of this rivalry. Put simply, it’s becoming so one-sided it’s starting to feel like not much of a rivalry at all.

Van Aert got the better of Van der Poel at last year’s edition of E3, but, despite having a far superior 2022 Tour de France, last beat him in direct combat at the 2020 Milan-San Remo. That was the first Monument victory for either of the pair, but it remains the only one on Van Aert’s mantlepiece, while Van der Poel has since collected a San Remo of his own, Paris-Roubaix, and the Tour of Flanders twice, not to mention the Road Race World Championship title last year, plus his five cyclo-cross world titles in the past six years.

It’s not that Van Aert has gone away or done much wrong. He has astounded in a variety of ways in recent years, but the unavoidable fact is that there is only one palmarès currently being knocked into the shape of an all-time great. For all the Classics in the bag, until Van Aert adds another Monument, most pressingly the elusive Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, there will be a clawing sense of unfulfillment, and continued question marks – fair or otherwise – over his aptitude for the big occasion.

“I don’t have to prove anything” Van Aert famously shouted after winning last year’s E3 – but not everyone is convinced. “That will continue to haunt him as long as he has not won a cobbled Monument,” Jan Bakelants wrote in Het Laatste Nieuws this week. Van Aert’s decision to sacrifice Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo, and Gent-Wevelgem this year, in a bid to go all-in for Flanders and Roubaix, would seem to be a tacit endorsement of Bakelants’ comment.

It’s perfectly true that there is no real reason for Van Aert to beat himself up about E3. After all, it will never really be known what might have transpired without the crash, and it’s now clear that his altitude experiment has at least left him in the right ballpark when it comes to form. What’s more, although E3 is seen as a dress rehearsal, Van Aert is more aware than anyone that it’s no guarantor of Flanders fortune.

And yet, there are things that might legitimately worry Van Aert as he looks ahead. For starters, the crash has left him with pain and stiffness on the right-hand side of his body. On top of that, most of his team hit the deck, too, and his closest plan B Christophe Laporte missed the race entirely with an illness that looks like it could derail his Flanders form. The idea of Visma’s strength-in-depth dismantling Van der Poel’s explosives suddenly looks shaky, and it’s increasingly likely that Van Aert will have to engage in that hand-to-hand combat his rival has been goading him into.

In that respect, the head is just as important as the legs. And while the E3 episode might not turn out to be decisive in the direction of the next few weeks, as a present-tense snapshot it does almost feel like a metaphor for where they’re up to in this rivalry of theirs.

Van der Poel is on the front foot, pulling away. He’s in a flow state and everything seems to be coming so naturally. Van Aert is on the back foot, scrambling. He’s under greater mental strain and he’s becoming weary with the accumulating setbacks.

As Flanders and Roubaix loom, will Van Aert breathe new life into this rivalry, or will we hear a crack?

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