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The Classics might be over for another year, but for two 24-year-olds the best is yet to come

Daniel Ostanek
2 May 2019

The battle of the Vans this year was just a glimpse of the rivalry we can expect for years to come. Everyone else will be fighting for third

Sadly, the Spring Classics are over. The near two-month long jaunt from Merelbeke to Liege, via Siena, Antwerp and a host of other exotic locales, is done, another chapter in the history books as we move on to the stage races of the summer.

Plenty of memories linger, of course – battles like Alaphilippe vs Fuglsang, Deceuninck-QuickStep vs the peloton, and Alberto Bettiol vs everybody’s betting slip. But another subplot has been running the whole time, continuing on from the dark days of winter, and only ending in the Ardennes.

If you hadn’t guessed already, it’s that of the two young guns – the multi-disciplinarians and longstanding cyclocross rivals, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. This spring was the first time we’ve seen their ‘cross battles translated to the road, as Van der Poel undertook his first ever Classics campaign.

While the Corendon-Circus man has been the revelation of the spring, a promising start evolving into a mini-Merckx, Van Aert has endured some lows to go with the highs as he embarks on his first season with Jumbo-Visma.

It’s hardly the first time two top cyclocrossers have crossed over. But we really haven’t seen anything quite like this before. Lars Boom and Zdenek Stybar were the last two big-names to make the jump at around the same time, in 2009 and 2011 respectively.

There were caveats though. Boom only rode two full cyclocross seasons at the senior level before leaving, and – despite Stybar’s golden 2009-10 season, plus the three World Championships between them – neither man was as dominant as Van Aert and Van der Poel have been for the past five years.

All the more exciting, then, to see how they fared in their first full spring campaign racing against each other (and the rest of the peloton, of course). And who better to ask than two men who have been alongside the pair all along? Grischa Niermann, DS for Jumbo-Visma, and Cristoph Roodhoft, manager of Corendon-Circus.

'We were hoping to win one race,' says Roodhoft of his team and Van der Poel. ‘Of course, one important one. I said to him at the first training camp: "I think you will win Brabantse Pijl and Waregem [Dwars door Vlaanderen]. For sure, that’s possible."'

It was an eerily prescient proclamation from Roodhoft, who has run the team alongside brother Philip for over a decade. Van der Poel not only won both races, but also triumphed at the GP Denain and Amstel Gold Race, which was by all accounts a bit of a thriller.

Expectations and evaluations

‘All the same, he could have won five [Classics],’ Roodhoft continues. ‘The Tour of Flanders he also could have won. It was a bit of bad luck. In Gent-Wevelgem he didn’t have enough confidence in himself, I think. Otherwise he would’ve also been the winner there.’

It was an opinion Van der Poel shared, at least partly. ‘Without the fall, I could have followed [Bettiol],’ he told Het Nieuwsblad after the race. And the near-20km chase back from that crash would’ve been one of his highlights of the spring were it not for pretty much everything else.

A week later it was Van Aert’s turn to mount an impressive chase. A puncture in the Arenberg Forest and a crash later on saw him race on alone for 20km himself. Like the week before, it was a tough day for the Belgian.

‘I think without the bad luck he had, for sure he would’ve been up there fighting for the win,’ says Niermann, a pro himself for 13 years with Rabobank before turning DS. ‘In Flanders he wasn’t on a great day. There, he couldn’t have done better because he wasn’t able to accelerate on Kwaremont or Paterberg in the finale.’

The Classics were, all-in-all, a happy experience for Jumbo-Visma and their new leader, despite not bagging the big wins like Van der Poel.

‘We didn’t have the best of luck, but we were coming from several years with Lotto-Jumbo where the spring campaign was rather unsuccessful,’ says Niermann. ‘Wout had some great results, and I think we did some really great races, not only for Wout but as a team.

‘For example, I think the best race we had was at Gent-Wevelgem where we could really excel as a team and do what we wanted. We were up there every time when a group went in the final. Even if the result wasn’t what we wanted, that’s how we want to race.’

So, it wasn’t all a one-man shows then, if that wasn’t obvious already. For Corendon-Circus the likes of Geert Van Bondt and Gianni Vermeersch (himself a ‘cross transplant) also excelled, with Roodhoft calling the latter ‘the revelation of the Flemish spring’ after his debut showing alongside Van der Poel.

Differing schedules

While Van Aert and Van der Poel are used to going head-to-head every week or more during the winter, the pair only faced off a few times this spring. Different invites and different focuses meant that Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Amstel Gold Race were the only points where their calendars converged.

It’s easy to look at the standings, see 4th, 4th and 1st vs 29th, 14th and 58th, and call it a win for Van der Poel. But Van Aert’s best results coming earlier in the spring, and maybe a race too far at Amstel might suggest a team figuring out how to best work with their new young star.

‘Wout’s achievement in Strade Bianche, what he showed there was really incredible,’ says Niermann. ‘We didn’t have a strong team and he rode away with the best two climbers of the spring. With that ride he showed what he’s capable of in future.’

Sixth at Milan-San Remo followed. It was surprising at the time to see him follow the elite puncheurs over the top of the Poggio, but was quickly contextualised by following performances, including a close-run second behind Stybar at the E3 BinckBank Classic.

For Van der Poel, his Classics run began the day after San Remo, and just a few after crashing out of Nokere Koerse. His win at GP Denain was a swift comeback from the spill which had onlookers worried that his spring would be over before it began.

Denain is something of a mini-Roubaix – it’s in the same region, shares a few cobbled sectors, and sees a lower level of rider turn out. But it’s that type of race – well, Paris-Roubaix in particular – where the pair’s duels of the future could be focussed.

‘He was good in Flanders. Races like Roubaix should suit him,’ says Roodhoft about Van der Poel, who missed the race this season to focus on racing Amstel Gold. ‘He showed that in Denain. Of course, the big names were not there, but to win is never easy.’

‘Maybe the race that suits Wout most is Paris-Roubaix,’ says Niermann. ‘You saw him this year. He was more chasing on the cobbles after his puncture and crash, rather than riding away on the cobbles. But if you saw that, you saw the potential he has in the race.’

Gearing up for the Classics

To race these races is one thing though, but how to prepare for them? Especially coming from a September to February cyclocross season. It’s not something the likes of Philippe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet or Peter Sagan have to countenance.

While those established road superstars, and pretty much every road-only pro, use the tried-and-tested routes to Classics form – early-season races in sunny climes like Spain, Australia and the Middle East followed up by Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico – it’s a totally different story for Van Aert and Van der Poel.

For Van Aert, who has raced exclusively one-day Classics thus far in 2019, there was a training camp in place of Paris-Nice, and no road racing before Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

‘We planned to do a camp in Belgium and also do recon for the Classics, but the weather meant we had to go to Alicante,’ says Niermann. ‘We came to the conclusion that we’d send some of our Classics guys to a week-long training camp during Paris-Nice.

‘We thought that for Wout it would be better preparation to do some good and long training rides instead of doing Paris-Nice and the chance of some really bad weather.’

As for Van der Poel, frequent training camps and a couple of lower-ranked, short stage races in the form of the Tour of Antalya and Circuit de Sarthe have helped him into form, not that he needs help, according to Roodhoft.

‘For him, it looks like he doesn’t need any competition at all to be good,’ he says. ‘Of course, he improves, but his level without competition is high enough to be there immediately.

‘We started building up [for the Classics] before the cyclocross World Championships. We took a small risk to prepare him for the road. He made the change easier than we expected, and then we went almost every month on a training camp.’

The plans clearly paid off, with subsequent results showing that the careful transition, which most riders don’t have to navigate, was well-managed this spring. ‘I think it worked out well and both Van der Poel and Van Aert showed that you don’t need some big stage races to be good for the Spring Classics,’ says Niermann. Whether it will catch on among non-cyclocrossers, however, remains to be seen.

Diverging paths

That’s that for now. It’s unlikely we’ll see the pair do battle again until the cyclocross season starts up again in the autumn. Van der Poel picked up his mountain bike on Tuesday and is already preparing for two UCI World Cup races in that discipline later this month.

Meanwhile, Van Aert is taking a break, holidaying in Dubai before returning to racing at the Criterium du Dauphine next month. There’s more balance to be struck for both, with their late season plans still to be revealed. With multiple disciplines to think about, and compete in, there’s nothing so arduous as Grand Tours on the menu just yet.

Making firm decisions about the future isn’t on the cards either, at least not in terms of picking road and sticking with it, as Stybar and Boom did.

‘I guess that’s a long way away for Wout,’ says Niermann. ‘It depends on what he wants and also maybe the sponsors. But for now, for next winter, and during the next few years, he will keep riding cyclocross races, for sure.’

‘As we see it now, it should work [balancing cyclocross, road and mountain bike],’ says Roodhoft. ‘The key is to think about it in advance – plan 12 months in advance. Mathieu’s head has to be clear. Then he can do whatever he wants.’

It may be disappointing to some road fans, but that’s the way it is for now. They’ll both be back, though. The rivalry will continue, both on the road and in the mud.

‘Obviously the rivalry will be more and more in the next years because they both seem to be the best riders in the Spring Classics,’ says Niermann. ‘It won’t be only those two that can win, but it’s already a rivalry that has carried on to the road now.

‘It’s nice to see both of them excel so much – it just comes down to having some exceptional talent. They’re just so gifted, both of them.’

So, the Spring Classics are over, and we’ve seen the two cyclocross stars light it up in only their debut and second year campaigns, and that’s perhaps what’s most exciting of all – for this pair of 24-year-olds, the two Vans, the best is yet to come.