We here at cxhairs.com have made it no secret that in our humble opinions, when it comes to sports, the beefier, the better. With good public spats largely absent from cyclocross in recent years, we have made the case for more domestic beef to spice things up and covered the season-long saga of the IserBEEF last cyclocross season.
While the inter-team feud between Eli Iserbyt and Laurens Sweeck was an entertaining sideshow, if we are being honest, it was kind of the ground chuck of the cyclocross beef world. Tasty at times but largely utilitarian, there is certainly room in cyclocross for a better cut of beef.
Fortunately for us dramavores, Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem
spring fall classic gave us a two-rider spat one would expect to find on the menu at the finest steakhouse out there.
Both the same cyclocross racing age, the careers of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert have been largely inseparable as the two riders have developed over the past decade. Sure Van der Poel has dabbled in some mountain biking, but the two have squared off in cyclocross dating back to their days as Juniors and both share aspirations to do big things on the road.
Despite racing against each other literally hundreds of times, the two rivals have largely seemed to exist separate from one another and have remained respectful and professional when talking about the other. One could argue there is some level of mutual respect there—there does appear to some—but at the same time, Van der Poel’s dominance probably has something to do with it as well.
While Van Aert is certainly a generational talent, he has had to stand by and watch Van der Poel casually become one of the top mountain bikers in the world, do that thing at Amstel Gold, and win 49 of the last 50 cyclocross races he has entered. Head-to-head in cyclocross, Van der Poel has come out ahead in a very nice 69% of their matchups (h/t cyclocross24.com).
As the most American Belgian cyclist, Van Aert is savvy enough to understand that when you are getting your filet mignon handed to you, you just look like a whiner if you try to start anything resembling beef with your big rival. In response, while watching Van der Poel win all the things, Van Aert has largely put on a public front of putting his head down and grinding away at stealing some of Van der Poel’s thunder.
With the COVID pandemic upending the cycling season and riders’ training regimens, the delayed start to the season served to provide a chance for Van Aert to get some of his swagger back, and swag he has done in a big way.
While “uncertainty” has been the buzzword of 2020, one thing is undoubtedly for sure, 2020 is the YEAR OF WOUT.
After a decent result at Omloop at the end of February (remember, that actually happened?), perhaps no one in cycling save PFP benefited more from the COVID shutdown than Van Aert. Still recovering from his gruesome injury in the 2019 Tour de France Stage 13 time trial, Van Aert clearly took full advantage of the extra time to continue his return to form and gain some dad-to-be watts.
Van Aert entered the
spring August classics on fire, winning Strade Bianche and then Milan San-Remo and then winning a sprint stage in the Tour and utterly destroying 2019 Tour champ Egan Bernal while leading his team up the Grand Colombier. Throw in two silvers at Road Worlds, and yeah, 2020 is no doubt the YEAR OF WOUT.
Many readers may see this as a recitation of things you already know because like me, you are an ardent Wout stan. However, the point is to demonstrate that for the first time since Van der Poel’s injury-affected 2015-16 cyclocross season, Wout is outshining his Dutch rival and has the results to casually do one of those scoreboard points.
Van der Poel and Van Aert raced against each other “earlier” this season at Strade, Milano-Torino, and Milano-San Remo before their paths diverged, with Wout seeing his name ring out at the biggest race in the world as he sprinted against Peter Sagan and crushed Bernal’s soul, while Van der Poel toiled in relative obscurity at races such as the BinckBank Tour and Tirreno-Adriatico. Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem provided a chance for the two cyclocross rivals to lock handlebars and perhaps give Van der Poel a chance to put a damper on the YEAR OF WOUT.
Of course, with Wout on his game, it also provided an opportunity for him to bring a little swagger to his showdown against his long-time rival.
Van Aert and Van der Poel both raced well on Sunday, making the final selection of nine riders that would ultimately ride into the last kilometers near each other. However, neither would come away with a win or even a wide-angle podium finish.
Van der Poel twice chased down attacks by Van Aert, including one with just kilometers to go, and when Van Aert made one last effort to catch a trio of riders on the attack, a likely smoked Van der Poel had no help to offer after his previous efforts to neutralize his Belgian rival. Resigned to a disappointing fate, Van Aert then outsprinted his Dutch rival for a not-so-thrilling 8th-place finish.
Despite his success from a young age, Van Aert has handled his success and setbacks like a professional, rarely getting too emotional over the lows and too cocky from the highs. However, this being the YEAR OF WOUT, Van Aert has shown he is not afraid to mix things up a bit, as his post-sprint birdie directed toward Sagan last month showed.
Miffed, annoyed, perhaps letting emotions get the best of him on Sunday, Van Aert did not hold back in post-race interviews.
“There was one who didn’t want to win and was only looking at me. Yes, Mathieu van der Poel. Apparently he would rather that I lost than that he won himself. He may have forgotten that I already won a lot. In the end we both have nothing.”
What followed, according to a solid article by Cycling News, was a thing prime beefs are made of.
After the race, Van der Poel offered his take on what happened before returning to the team bus. One can only assume he checked Twitter, because the Dutch wunderkind came back to offer his rebuttal to Wout.
“It’s a strange reaction of Wout. He is one of the best riders in the front group. When he attacks, I have to react of course. That’s just racing. It’s a bit low to say that I ride to let him lose. I always ride to win.”
To close things out and add to the beefiness, a reporter asked Van der Poel if he was going to contact Van Aert to straighten things out.
“No, he’s going to read about this, I suppose,” MvdP responded. “I’m not mad at him, but I just wanted to offer my side of the story.”
If you’re going to beef, beef via the media. A beautiful duel, indeed.
If we apply Occam’s Razor to Sunday’s goings-on, the most straightforward explanation of what occurred was Van der Poel knew Wout was riding well and was merely reacting when chasing him down and in the process blowing himself up. While passions ran high, Van Aert got a bit caught up in the moment and let some of his frustration out with a verbal middle finger in Van der Poel’s direction.
That is, of course, the charitable and most likely version of events.
If this beef has legs, well, Van der Poel has only known domination over Van Aert, and as we have seen in cyclocross when he pulls a Van der Quit on a tough day, perhaps the Flying Dutchman is not that well equipped to handle adversity.
The year 2020, the YEAR OF WOUT, is the first season Van der Poel has had to not only share the spotlight with his Belgian counterpart but really cede most of it to the perfectly coiffed Jumbo-Visma rider. It is admittedly a stretch, but what if Van der Poel decided that if he didn’t have the legs to win, he could at least cast a blemish on the YEAR OF WOUT? Could there be a bit of truth to what Van Aert was saying? Could this be a level of beef rarely seen on this level of the sport?
For us dramavores, one can certainly only hope.
To suggest Van der Poel is willing to torpedo Van Aert to sully his success is perhaps a claim too far, but there is no question that a cycling world where Wout has the palmares to give him a little bit of swagger up against Van der Poel is a world that makes the sport significantly more interesting.
With the Ronde van Vlaanderen coming up on Sunday, let’s hope the two rivals make the break again and continue to make this long-time rivalry edgier and perhaps, dare we say, beefier.