With Mathieu van der Poel lining up to take aim at a sixth career elite Cyclocross World Championships title on February 4 in Tabor, Belgium – set to be the strongest team – may well have to settle for a battle over silver and bronze.
Belgium will be lacking their best chance at winning the rainbow jersey as former champion Wout van Aert ended his 2023-2024 cyclocross campaign with his third win of the season in Benidorm.
The Visma-Lease A Bike star overcame a late crash to solo home and head an all-Belgian podium where he was flanked by Michael Vanthourenhout and Thibau Nys, while Van der Poel and Tom Pidcock fell out of contention due to late crashes of their own.
Belgian national coach Sven Vanthourenhout has said that it will likely require a similar mistake from Van der Poel for one of his riders to prevail at the UCI Cyclocross World Championships – not that he’s hoping for crashes.
“It will be very difficult to beat him,” he told Sporza earlier this week. “In the big moments he rarely, if ever, makes a mistake.
“That’s why you have to stay sharp. We don’t wish Mathieu to have any setbacks, we have a lot of respect for him, but you have to grab that half per cent.”
Speaking to Het Nieuwsblad, Vanthourenhout acknowledged that such a mistake from the overwhelming favourite for the rainbow jersey – at Benidorm Van der Poel hit a padded pole at speed having misjudged his line through a corner, missing out on an 11th successive race win as a result – is a rarity.
“You can always make mistakes and unfortunately bad luck is part of sport, but we wouldn’t wish it on anyone, especially an athlete like Van der Poel. However, the fact remains that every ‘cross must be raced,” he said.
“The fact that Mathieu van der Poel himself already said that the World Championships is the most important race of his cyclocross campaign for him says a lot. When he sets a goal, he rarely misses it.”
Belgium will line up with a team including double bronze medallist Eli Iserbyt, 2018 silver medallist and current European champion Vanthourenhout, and reigning U23 world champion Nys.
On paper, they’ll be the strongest of the elite men’s squads in Tabor, though none are quite at the level of Van der Poel. Vanthourenhout called it a shame” that Van Aert had decided against riding.
“It’s a shame, but we’ve known that for some time,” he told Sporza. “We haven’t tried to convince him anymore. I asked him again, in a playful way. [He replied] ‘You will have to do it without me…