It was to be the dress rehearsal for the Tour of Flanders, the first and only confrontation this autumn on the road between Mathieu van der Poel, the Dutchman in Belgian service (Alpecin-Fenix) and Wout van Aert, the Belgian in Dutch service ( Jumbo-Visma). The former has been in shape again in recent weeks, the other won almost everything there was to win this summer. Just taste each other’s kidneys in Gent-Wevelgem. How are things, a week before the last monument on the cycling agenda, after the disappearance of Paris-Roubaix?
It is not foreseen that they will keep an eye on each other so closely this Sunday between some sprinkling showers that they will eventually cross the finish line in the Vanackerestraat in eighth (Van Aert) and ninth (Van der Poel), seven seconds behind the winner, the Dane Mads Pedersen. It also turns out to be an exam with a spiky edge.
The moment Van der Poel says with the stained bike between his legs after the finish that he had already made his ultimate effort by bringing back four riders, including Van Aert, from an already very strong leading group, the Flemish picks up about ten meters away on just such a dingy bicycle are grams. At first he scornfully does not even mention the name of the person who nestled in his wheel every time he attacked or neutralized the attacks of others.
Van Aert: ‘There was only one who apparently preferred me to lose than to win. Yes, that was Van der Poel. Apparently he has already forgotten that I have already won a lot. But yes, I’m not going to close every hole for him. I am disappointed, it is not his style of racing, maybe I misjudged it. Neither of us buy anything for this. ‘
About fifteen minutes later, Van der Poel learns how displeased his rival is. He feels compelled to respond and goes to the studio of the Flemish program Sporza. There is still something to be rectified, in his view. Of course he had to go after Van Aert. About his comments: ‘It’s a bit of a strange reaction. He is one of the best riders at the moment. If I let him go, I certainly won’t win. ‘ It is that effort that has let the last forces flow from his legs. ‘I was running on my gums. I had hoped I was alone, but there were still a lot of riders in the wheel. ‘
No, he doesn’t blame Van Aert for his anger. ‘I wanted to tell my side of the story. This is course. I know it might be hard to imagine if the two of us cross the line behind the group, but we both really drove to win. ‘
In any case, they color the match. The peloton has to cross the Kemmelberg three times. First Van der Poel leads the dance of the peloton on the vicious cobbled slope, during the second passage they are in the front and during the last climb Van Aert closes the gap with the leading group from the foot, with the Dutchman in the wheel. Once on their way from Ypres to Wevelgem, they both do not shy away from work in a heavily occupied group, including former world champion Pedersen, former European champion Matteo Trentin, winner of the Tour of Flanders Alberto Bettiol and former winner of Paris-Roubaix. John Degenkolb.
But when one flight attempt follows the other in the last kilometers, poker begins between the two top favorites, of whom Van Aert in particular seems to act the easiest. After a few explosions of power back and forth, he resides in a sprint. But Pedersen takes the leap to three in the lead in the last kilometer and wins the sprint. Florian Sénéchal, Trentin and Bettiol cross the finish line behind him. Pedersen: ‘It was all or nothing. I just tried. The next time you can just drop out of the top 10 after something like that. ‘ He also concludes afterwards that Van der Poel and Van Aert have mainly been involved with each other.
Will that be different in the Tour of Flanders? Van der Poel announces that he will ‘set course’. “That’s a bit easier there than here.” Gent-Wevelgem, with long straight roads as the final part, is not his favorite race. Van Aert: ‘It is logical that we are both in the final again. We’ve been bumping into each other for so long. That won’t be any different next week. ‘
After Sunday’s failed rehearsal, both know that the performance in the Flemish high mass will have to be flawless.