The Never-Ending Story
I was walking the dog after Sunday’s cyclocross world championships and thinking of what to say about it, eventually imagining what it’s like to cover the sport for a living in the Era of Matti and Wout. “Hey, Jumbo Visma PR director, I am thinking of doing a feature on Wout Van Aert’s rivalry with Mathieu van der Poel, could I get 15 minutes of his time?” And then I think that pot has been legalized just in the nick of time.
Is this rivalry killing the sport? No, but it is definitely killing cycling media. Not only is everyone sick of talking about the rivalry, we are now getting sick of stories about how we are sick of talking about the rivalry. There is nothing left to say about the two on that big picture level.
That said, it’s one of the great rivalries ever, like Red Sox-Yankees, or Barcelona-Real Madrid, or communism-capitalism. The key to appreciating it is to not get too caught up in the narrative, because if you let it ruin your experience, you’ll miss some pretty great moments. As nauseating as another “who’s better?” feature would be, the individual races themselves are all-time great racing, and we should appreciate it in real time so we can explain to our kids (OK grandkids) in 20 years when they ask us, “Nono, what was it like to live through the Era of Matti and Wout?”
The ‘Cross Worlds at Ostend were another of those moments. This was something of a chess match between the two riders, as opposed to the usual story of “can anything get in the way of van der Poel just riding away and crushing everyone?” The Belgian organizers, not surprisingly, designed a course that gave Van Aert a set of advantages, while not entirely tipping the race away from van der Poel, making this less “Godzilla Versus Mechagodzilla” and more “Godzilla Versus King Kong.” Two clashing styles. Which one would prevail?
Ultimately van der Poel did, and surprisingly he did so by beating Van Aert at his own game, riding and running in the deep sand. Wout is the superior sand rider, in theory, and definitely the better runner, and in the day’s first couple laps he gained a few bits of time in exactly that manner, with van der Poel skidding out, feeling some pressure, and even flipping in a mud section.
But speaking of tired narratives, van der Poel then rose up to slay the one where he gets flummoxed by some bad breaks and loses his will to win. With Van Aert 13 seconds up the trail, van der Poel got back to work, and the Cycling Gods gifted him with a Van Aert front tire flat, one that would cost the Belgian (based on lap times) some 17 seconds at least. Psychologically, the advantage flipped back to the Dutchman, and maybe even physically, riding on the flat took too much from Van Aert. His post-race comments sounded like a bit of both: he says he “mentally cracked” after the flat but that he almost caught back up, only to blow his legs in the process.
In the end, what mattered most was that van der Poel rode a flawless race and Van Aert had little hope of stopping him, even if a couple early breaks went his way. Van der Poel says the sand stiffened a bit as the race went on, making his lap times faster and faster, and slowly nullifying the advantage Van Aert enjoys in the nastiest terrain, until van der Poel built an unassailable lead and went on cruise control. He executed his plan very well, and it was Van Aert, then under pressure, who began slipping in the sand.
To show just how mentally and physically strong van der Poel was, on the fourth lap, at 25:20 of the race, van der Poel came out of his pedal in the middle of the 21% gradient flyover bridge built for the event. It all happened so fast it may have slipped your notice, but take a look. Van der Poel is about a third of the way up when his right foot comes loose.
A second later he is back in his pedal and wobbling sideways but quickly righting the ship:
You can see Van Aert mere seconds behind; the race was still very much on at this point. More incredibly, this occurred just after the grueling succession of sand sections, as the riders returned over the bridge to the grassy crit part. There’s a lot of pain happening. And this is a 21% gradient.
I’ve been completely obsessed with this moment all day. How do you unclip on a twenty-fucking-one percent gradient and not put a foot down? How do you keep momentum going, in so much pain, with one leg and your balance screwed up? How do you not freak all the way out in this moment, with the world watching, and slide backwards to the bottom of the ramp? I don’t know. I will never, ever know.
Fare The Well Doom
Tom Dumoulin’s sudden announcement that he is taking a sabbatical from his day job sounds an awful lot like the precursor to a retirement. And I’m here to tell you, that is exactly what he should do.
There are plenty of stories examining Dumoulin’s reticence and self doubt, and I am in no position to delve into that subject, even if it weren’t redundant. But I can say this: has anyone ever gone on sabbatical from life in the endless pain cave and come back to say “you know what? I sure do miss life in the endless pain cave!” No. You go on leave because you don’t love being a cyclist, and a month at the beach or a few visits with a life coach aren’t going to turn that around.
Nor should it be any different. Why would anyone want to spend their life in an endless pain cave, chasing a dream in a sport that is far more likely to put you in the hospital than to give you any sort of satisfaction? The answer is, some guys just do, and can shrug off the risks too. Those people should be professional cyclists. The rest of us, probably not. Believe me, as someone who has spent years in the endless pain cave of internet content generating, I know.
Cycling isn’t an escape from the mines anymore. Dumoulin comes from a family of professionals and if my own experience along those lines is any guide, he can probably pick whatever path in life he likes. This is doubly so given his fame and fortune, even with the decade of delay in his formal education (assuming that’s a part of what comes next).
And even more importantly, what is there in cycling for him anymore? He has little hope of ever being number one, after having come close. He’s not even number one on his own team. I heard him tell the Cycling Podcast that he and his Jumbo-Visma teammate Steven Kruijswijk are now “like the shadow leaders, is that how you say it?” [Fucking Dutch people. “Can I be awesome at you in like six different languages?” Yes, that’s how you say it.] Dumoulin has accomplished exactly what we would have predicted, and possibly did predict, in his career. He’s a world champion and national champion in the time trial. He won the Giro d’Italia and finished on the Tour de France podium, with three stages to his name. He’s won stages in all three grand tours, another select club. He took the silver medal in the Olympics. He’s been knighted by the King in the Order van Oranje-Nassau! Let’s see Egan Bernal top that.
But despite his decorations, he had nowhere else to go. Sure, there were more prizes out there, but a rider of his caliber — good on a climb, great against the watch — was becoming increasingly unlikely of achieving them. The kids have come and knocked everyone down a peg or three. And he wasn’t on the top peg to begin with. His Slovenian teammate Roglic was.
So it’s cool to see him be true to himself and consider options outside the pain cave. Let’s not pretend he’s going to change his mind and crawl back in.
He’s Number One
Look, I’m never one to say you should read much into winter results, but we don’t have very many of them right now, and I need something to read. So with that, I give you the World’s #1 ranked rider for 2021: Aurelien Paret-Peintre of AG2R.
APP bagged the first big race on European soil this year, coming from behind in the pared-down sprint at the end of a lumpy, cold and windy race to take the final sprint at the GP La Marseillaise.
Paret-Peintre earned his first pro win with the effort. He has fallen behind a few of his classmates in the endless rush to greatness by impossibly young riders. At the 2017 Piccolo Giro di Lombardia, he was fourth just behind Gino Mader (mental note there) and ahead of other then-unknowns like Tadej Pogacar, Marc Hirschi, Alexandr Vlasov and Jai Hindley.
[Arrested Development narrator voice]
And that’s why you don’t pay too much attention to U23 results.
OK, fine, he might not be quite at the level of these newly crowned kings of the sport. but Paret-Peintre is still 24 and kicking off his fourth pro season in style and making him someone to watch in the middling classics with some hills (but not too many of them). Good shot in the arm for a team that racked up just five wins in 2020.
But hey, don’t read too much into winter results, right?