Cyclocross, being a bit specialized and largely in the possession of a couple small nations in northern Europe, has been accused of getting dull at times, as a result of the somewhat predictable winners’ circle. Just in my ‘Cross-watching years, we’ve gone from the dominance of Sven Nys and/or Niels Albert to the dominance of the two very young and incredible world champions, Mathieu van der Poel of the Netherlands and Wout Van Aert of Belgium, with barely a pause in between. Sure, there is more to the story than that — Zdenek Stybar hung around on occasion, particularly when a world title was on the line — and Kevin Pauwels frequently threatened to take a turn at the top before his cursed fate could get round to doing its thing. Even the specter of Lars Boom made for some all-too-brief intrigue. But in the end, cyclocross tends to be in the hands of a few guys so dedicated that they won’t switch to road as soon as they get strong enough.
I’m not sure about that last part, but I do know that the presence of the two Young Guns is a really great thing for the sport, for however long it lasts. Why? Because even if we know one of them is going to win the race, and even if we think we are sure which one it is, they still put on an inhumanly great show. That point was driven home not once, but twice this weekend.
Simply put, there are nuances to the sport that separate the “great duels” from the really great duels, and that was what made the pair of races this weekend so amazing. Saturday was the DVV Scheldecross near Antwerp, a low-lying sand trap-fest with some very tricky little nuances to it to challenge the handling abilities of the best riders. There, Van Aert took off alone, with van der Poel getting stuck in some early traffic, but the Dutchman struck back in time at the end and took it on the last lap. [Notably, with Pauwels bridging up to the pair. God luv ya Kev.] Sunday the action was a World Cup race in Namur, a classic course of elevation gain and loss in the forests around the Citadel. This time it was Van Aert who fell behind in some mishaps, only to catch up later — again, with Pauwels joining the fun, and again, with van der Poel sealing the deal on the final lap.
Great duels can be the sort of things you read about, where the news accounts say how X and Y slugged it out for the umpteenth time with one of them taking the win. But they aren’t really all that great if Y beat X in a sprint, and sort of sat on for the last lap waiting for that to happen. That’s not at all how the van der Poel-Van Aert races go, however. These battles are won and lost at the very edge of catastrophe, the force that makes Cyclocross so great.
Before we turn to this weekend, here’s the gold standard of battling on the edge of catastrophe, at least from the last few years. [Feel free to link to some great Nys passes of years gone by.] This is one I’ve mentioned a few times, the moment I fell in (sports fan) love with Lars van der Haar:
That’s the Worlds from this January. Van Aert obviously overcame this moment of desperation from van der Haar, who knew he had to do something special, and soon, if he had any chance of winning in the end. At was amazing, but Van Aert was the strongest man and ran away from the Dutchman (literally) in a couple short, messy sections just before a sprint could happen.
This weekend, the Young Guns were head to head, under the circumstances described above. Both had attacked, both had chased, neither was content to sprint in the last 100 meters. Both have something to prove to the other, that they will stop at nothing to beat each other, on any part of the course.
This was the moment it got hot in Antwerp. Van der Poel came alongside Van Aert, who’d been in front for a while, and took the lead on this unbelievable bit of elbow-to-elbow action.
It wasn’t literally the moment the race was won -- Van Aert tracked down van der Poel in the subsequent run through the sand, only to see the Dutchman gap him once they rode on through the next bit. But it was the moment the battle went to eleven.
The next day circumstances were somewhat reversed, with Van Aert the hunter and van der Poel the hunted. Stinging from the previous day’s pass, Van Aert was the aggressor coming up from behind in the day’s hottest moment. And he was absolutely fucking not going to be denied.
Unfortunately for him, van der Poel came by on a subtly horrible off-camber section, stretching the elastic briefly, and then snapped it on a really grungy uphill corner where vdP moved through smoothly but the Belgian got momentarily stuck. That was all it took to decide the race once and for all. But what a race it was.
These passes are about courage and determination, an almost unimaginable will so great that it can completely dominate the fear of what looks like looming disaster. Yes, it’s about technique and the mastery thereof, but for these guys to launch that technical ability at each other in this way is also about a special mentality that makes this sport so great, that makes so many sports great. We may not have endless years of this, because these two are at such a high quality that the lure of the road will be too much, fairly soon. But they’re already carving out a legacy that won’t be forgotten by anyone who really watched them in real time.
The season has another six weeks of incredibleness on tap. Settle in now.
Oh, and if you missed it live, watch Saturday’s Scheldecross:
And watch the last lap of the Citadelcross:
And weep for Pauwels. By the time these guys move to road, he’ll be a bit too long in the tooth. And van der Haar will be back. Some guys have all the luck... or not.