Exact Cross Mol: Mathieu van der Poel a class above Wout van Aert in first winter showdown

Cyclo-cross world champion proves too much for Van Aert in the sand of Mol, as the historic rivalry returns for another winter campaign

Clock15:03, Friday 22nd December 2023
Mathieu van der Poel, pictured riding in Antwerpen last season, is an expert of dealing with sand in cylo-cross

© Velo Collection (TDW) / Getty Images

Mathieu van der Poel, pictured riding in Antwerpen last season, is an expert of dealing with sand in cylo-cross

In their first showdown of the 2023/24 cyclo-cross campaign, Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) got the better of Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) with a masterful performance in the Exact Cross Mol.

Van Aert commuted to the race by bike, much to the delight of many race-going fans who took their opportunity to grab a quick selfie with the three-time world champion prior to the race. Perhaps unrelated to this, Van Aert appeared to miss his roll call and began the race from the second row.

This proved no barrier to a good performance for the Belgian, who was quickly at the front of affairs alongside Van der Poel, but it was on the third lap that the latter cooked up his latest showstopper.

With more than the occasional flourish of technical prowess, Van der Poel motored away from his rival and opened a gap that would never again be closed. Such was the superiority of Van der Poel on the day, that even a dropped chain could barely stop his momentum. He could not be stopped and would pick up a second victory in as many weeks.

Van Aert of soon-to-be Visma-Lease a Bike, meanwhile, was able to comfortably place second and use much of the race to hone his skills in the sand ahead of Saturday's showdown between himself, Van der Poel and Ineos Grenadiers' Tom Pidcock.

Read more: Preview: UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup Antwerpen

Behind the pair, it was Niels Vandeputte (Alpecin-Deceuninck) who was able to get the better of teammate Quinten Hermans and Crelan-Corendon's Toon Vandebosch in an enjoyable contest for third place.

Mathieu van der Poel off like a rocket

With Christmas music blasting loud from the speakers that encircled the Mol course, the start of the men's race saw Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) unusually placed on the second row.

Having reportedly missed his call to the start line, the Belgian accepted his slot on the second row and was forced to watch Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) nail his start from the gun. To his credit, Spits CX Team's Vincent Baestaens enjoyed an even better hole shot to lead into the first corner, but it wasn't long before Van der Poel and Van Aert opened a gap to the rest of the field behind.

A second-row start notwithstanding, Van Aert was quickly able to manoeuvre himself to the side of Van der Poel and give the fans the showdown they had been anticipating. Seeing his long-time nemesis on his wheel, Van der Poel decided to see what Van Aert had in his locker and moved to one side to allow the Belgian through to the front.

The first lap saw Van Aert spend the opening few minutes in front of Van der Poel, but the Jumbo-Visma man offered a first sign of weakness with a moment of struggle in the sand. No doubt encouraged by Van Aert's brief floundering, Van der Poel looked to take advantage and opened a small gap.

It would take more than this to subdue Van Aert, however, with the 29-year-old soon providing a handy response and rounding Van der Poel to end the first lap in the lead of the race. Behind the pair, Van der Poel's teammate Quinten Hermans came across the line in third, with fellow teammate Niels Vandeputte in fourth and Toon Vandebosch (Crelan-Corendon) in fifth.

The Van der Poel and Van Aert duel remained much the same through the second lap, but Hermans' ride only got better and better, with the Belgian going as far as to find the wheel of the leading pair as the third lap came into view.

Dropped chain not enough to stop Van der Poel, as Van Aert falters

Bolstered by the confidence of having his teammate Hermans in close proximity, Van der Poel started to flex his powers on the third lap and mini bursts of acceleration allowed the Dutchman to open the first substantial gap of the race. Mastering his ride through both sand and mud alike, the world champion was a joy to watch as he showed his rival a fresh pair of heels.

Unable to match Van der Poel's sensational third lap, Van Aert was soon riding 11 seconds down on the Dutchman and facing a tough ask to compete for the win.

Throughout the fourth lap, this gap began to extend, that is until Van der Poel's chain dropped off and caused a five-second pause for the race leader. Just as he avoided the temptation when faced with a crash in the UCI World Championship Road Race, the CX world champion did not panic.

Rather, he continued to power away at the front and lap many riders who are not blessed with such abilities as the Dutchman. By the end of lap four, Van der Poel had extended his gap over Van Aert to 23 seconds, with Hermans, Vandebosch and Vandeputte not far behind in third, fourth and fifth, respectively.

Surfing across the sand like Cody Maverick off the coast of Peng Gu Island, Van der Poel already looked unstoppable come the halfway point of the race. Never one to throw the towel in, though, Van Aert motored away behind and entered the sixth lap with a handsome 20-second lead over Vandebosch and Hermans in third and fourth.

Niels Vandeputte wins battle for third, as Van der Poel takes win no.151

Revitalised by an energy gel, Vandeputte soon put himself back into the three-up battle for third place that saw Vandebosch trying to upset the Alpecin-Deceuninck applecart. With Van der Poel and Van Aert now settled in their places, it was the competition for third place that provided much of the entertainment throughout the race's final laps.

The gap between Van der Poel and Van Aert had exceeded a minute as they both began their final lap of the race, with Vandeputte a minute further back and Vandebosch looking to rescue his fading hopes of finishing on the podium.

Winner of Mol in 2016 and 2019, Van der Poel added a third title to his list of cyclo-cross victories that now totals a whopping 151. He was in a league of his own from the third lap and was rewarded with the top step of the podium come the end of the race, with Van Aert mopping up second 1:16 after the Dutchman.

Meanwhile, as Vandebosch's podium challenge faded, Vandeputte pipped his teammate Hermans to the third step of the podium, with the pair crossing the line 2:11 and 2:16 after Van der Poel, respectively. Vandebosch was forced to settle for fifth place but can be pleased with a good hit out ahead of the CX World Cup in Antwerpen on Saturday.

Race Results

1

nl flag

VAN DER POEL Mathieu

58' 27"

2

be flag

VAN AERT Wout

+ 1' 17"

3

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VANDEPUTTE Niels

+ 2' 12"

4

be flag

HERMANS Quinten

+ 2' 16"

5

be flag

VANDEBOSCH Toon

+ 2' 32"

6

be flag

VERMEERSCH Gianni

+ 4' 55"

7

be flag

FERDINANDE Anton

+ 5' 20"

8

be flag

DE VET Sander

+ 5' 30"

9

be flag

BELLENS Jarno

+ 5' 32"

10

be flag

MEEUSEN Tom

+ 5' 33"

Provided by FirstCycling

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