Wout van Aert (Visma-Lease a Bike) ended Mathieu van der Poel’s (Alpecin-Deceuninck) 10-race win streak at the cyclocross World Cup in Beindorm on Sunday, arriving solo at the finish after the Dutchman crashed into a post on the penultimate lap and fell out of contention for victory.
The Belgian’s first victory of the cyclocross season over his long-term rival almost ended in disaster after he also hit the deck and broke his saddle trying to remount his bike after dismounting to jump the barriers on the final lap. Van Aert avoided the embarrassment and held on for victory after dropping Michael Vanthourenhout (Pauwels-Sauzen-Bingoal) earlier in the lap.
Yet in his last cyclocross race of the season, it wasn’t the victory itself that was paramount for Van Aert, but the strong feeling in his legs and ability to respond to Van der Poel’s stinging attacks up the hardest inclines for the first time this season.
“It’s always good to win a race, but it wasn’t the most important thing today,” Van Aert suggested.
“I hoped to have good legs and end the season with a good feeling. I managed to do that, and in the end, I am happier with that than the win itself.”
“I was able to dig deep and fight with Mathieu. I haven’t been able to do that this winter. It’s a shame that we couldn’t have a duel in the end, but there were a lot of other strong riders that I had to beat. It wasn’t easy, but I’m glad I won.”
Van Aert’s previous three appearances on the cross bike saw him finish 1:43, 1:55 and 0:43 behind Van der Poel in Koksijde, Baal and Hulst respectively, highlighting his rival’s dominance this season even over a three-time World Champion in the discipline.
Benidorm was Van Aert’s final cyclocross appearance of the 2023-24 season after making a conscious decision to ride less of the discipline, with full focus on the Spring Classics and trying to win the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
“Wout has used several cyclocross races to prepare for the road season. He didn’t make his cyclocross campaign too long and was able to do other necessary training and training camps at the same time,” Heijboer highlighted.
“The starting point was that we didn’t build up to peak form but worked on a gradual build-up. It worked, and we will continue with a week’s training in Spain right after this last cross.”
Van Aert is set to make his road debut in 2024 at the Classica de Almeria on February 11, before racing the Volta ao Algarve ahead of the cobbled Classics in Belgium and France.
The cobbled Classics complete his spring programme before debuting at the Giro d’Italia where he’ll be chasing stages alongside sprinter Olav Kooij and young GC hope Cian Uijtdebroeks.
Jonas Vingegaard will have to make do without Van Aert at this year’s Tour de France as the Belgian prioritises the Giro and Paris Olympics instead in summer. He will train at altitude while Vingegaard tries to win a third Tour de France.
Van Aert rode nine cyclocross races compared to last season’s 14 and unlike in 2023, he won’t be continuing onto the World Championships in Tabor where Van der Poel will look to defend his title. Van Aert, Heijboer and Visma-Lease a Bike are hoping this will make the difference come the Monuments in Spring.
A win at one of cycling’s five biggest one-day races was the only missing piece from Jumbo-Visma’s all-but-perfect 2023 season that saw them claim all three Grand Tours with different riders.
2024 marks four years since Van Aert took his first and only Monument at Milan-Sanremo. He’s been on the podium in six of his last 10 Monument appearances and never finished outside of the top eight. However, there have been no added victories.
This would be an incredible record, but in the same time span, Van der Poel has claimed two Tours of Flanders and just last season won both Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix, with a road race world title on top in Glasgow.
Van Aert is the leader of a very strong Visma-Lease a Bike Classics team that dominated the cobbled races until Flanders and Roubaix last year. He will be hoping the move away from a full cyclocross season can add that few extra per cent on the biggest days to beat the likes of Van der Poel.
“This winter the cyclocross is much more of a means than an end. Everything is based on spring,” Heijboer told Het Nieuwsblad in December.
“Last year, I found it mentally difficult to focus on the cyclocross season and then move on to the spring,” said Van Aert recently.
“I didn’t want to leave anything to chance with the Spring Classics.”