This weekend saw the completion of the Cyclo-cross World Championships and, in the final race, two opposing tales were told on the racetrack. The two race favourites - Belgian racer Wout van Aert and Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel - were each in position to claim a fourth Cyclo-cross world title with a victory and put on a daring and heart-racing display of cycling prowess. In the end, only one could take home the title and, after a parabolic race between the two competitors, van der Poel came away with the win, the title and all the plaudits.
In what way was this race “parabolic?” you might ask. I refer to the early success of van Aert, followed by crisis and a slow falling off, compared with a slow-ish start, followed by a display of pure heart by van der Poel, to close the gap and win. Van Aert started well, taking a lead quickly and, at one point, opening up a gap of twenty seconds. He was racing well and, if all continued according to plan, was nailed on to win the race and the championship. This, however, is Cyclo-cross, where everything does not go according to plan. A puncture on the third lap crushed his lead and his progress, allowing Mathieu van der Poel to close the gap, overtake his opponent and win.
The real contrast in the racing of the two world class cyclists, as Wout van Aert will freely admit, was mentality. Grit. Heart. Having led the early stages and been racing well, van Aert was not able to overcome the mental hurdle born upon him by the puncture. Speaking at the Sporza studio in Ostend after the race, the Belgian admitted that “for some reason, I was no longer able to go through the wall after puncturing. Mentally, I cracked.” The Dutchman – van der Poel, by contrast, did not. He was able to keep pushing and pushing and pushing, even when the gap between him and his rival had grown substantially, even after going headfirst over the handlebars on the second lap, before van Aert’s puncture. He pushed back and took the win.
It is testament to the quality of these athletes that such an apparent lack of heart is worthy of note in the post-race press conference, and testament to van Aert’s character that he was able to identify and admit to his own failing so quickly: “I didn’t fight back like I’m normally able to do; I became discouraged… I come across as being very disappointed but obviously Mathieu is the deserved champion: half the race he was riding flawlessly, and I didn’t come any closer so there’s nothing to play down about that.” Such is the nature of bike racing. Sometimes, things go wrong. You must do your best and, if someone else makes a mistake, try and capitalise. There’s nothing more you can do. We look forward to watching the rest of Wout van Aert’s (and Mathieu van der Poel’s) seasons, to see how they bounce back, and press on, from their defeat and victory in the races to come.