From one season to another, Wout van Aert (Team Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu Van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) change their bikes, challenge new opponents and race on totally different terrain. Yet still they remain on top of the game.
This Saturday, the winners of the last seven Men Elite UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships will be among the top contenders for the first Monument of the season, Milano-Sanremo. Also in the mix will be reigning UCI Road World Champion, Deceuninck - Quick-Step’s Julian Alaphilippe, one of their greatest opponents on the road who also happens to be a former strong cyclo-cross man.
The three young stars, among the most thrilling riders of their generation, have created a spectacular rivalry, captivating the fans’ attention and hearts. Over the Poggio, up and down the Ardennes hills or on the cobbles, anything can happen in the spring Classics. And that’s when this trio shines, as they’ve already shown in previous encounters.
Belgium’s Van Aert (WVA) versus Dutchman Van der Poel (MVDP) versus France’s Alaphilippe (Loulou): the dream line-up.
While Van Aert and Van der Poel have been opponents for years through the different categories of cyclo-cross (where Alaphilippe has also faced them on a few occasions), their road rivalry is much younger.
The first event that brought together the fantastic trio on the road was the Amstel Gold Race, back in 2019. Fast forward two years and, with the latest edition of Tirreno-Adriatico that finished Tuesday this week in San Benedetto del Tronto, they’ve now shared a dozen racing days.
It doesn’t sound many – but it has been enough to conquer landmark wins and launch some of the most daring attacks witnessed in the past years. Some of these moments seemed unreal, but they’re part of the very tangible legend of WVA, MVDP and Loulou.
From the outset, the 2019 Amstel Gold Race was an absolute must-watch with a magnificent scenario and a historic winner. Van der Poel and Alaphilippe lit fireworks far from the finish. The Frenchman looked set to battle for victory with Jakob Fuglsang… until MVDP came back from seemingly nowhere and capped off his fast pursuit with a furious sprint, becoming the first Dutch winner of ‘the Amstel’ this century, 29 years to the day after his father won the race. Epic.
Can you ask for more? Yes, always. And these three champions are gifts who keep on giving.
Although Van Aert was a distant witness to Van der Poel’s triumph in the 2019 Amstel Gold Race, he was to come to the fore in later races. The next event featuring the fantastic trio was the 2020 edition of Strade Bianche, and it was Van Aert who flew to victory in Siena while Van der Poel and Alaphilippe struggled with punctures.
In Milano-Sanremo week later, Alaphilippe tried to make the most of his punch over the Poggio but he couldn’t get rid of Van Aert, who sprinted to his first Monument victory, leaving Loulou to make do with 2nd, while Van der Poel finished 13th.
The three stars looked set to properly battle it out on the 2020 Ronde van Vlaanderen but Alaphilippe suffered a heavy crash after he opened up the race in style. Van Aert and Van der Poel reignited their cyclo-cross duel and it was the Dutchman who went on to succeed his father Adrie Van der Poel.
Winter has passed and the rivalry has reached new levels in this early 2021 season. Van der Poel, Van Aert and Alaphilippe were all in the mix for an absolute showdown on Tuscany’s white roads. Again, the Dutch rider proved to be the most powerful in Siena.
They stayed in Italy for Tirreno-Adriatico, where each of them took one of the opening three stages: first Van Aert, thanks to a powerful sprint; then Alaphilippe, with a cheeky acceleration and a sassy celebration; finally Van der Poel, who evacuated his “frustration” from the previous days and also took time to celebrate in style.
By that time, Van der Poel, Van Aert and Alaphilippe had faced each other in eight road races. And it was one of them who claimed victory on all eight occasions. Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) put an end to that run on the slopes up Prati di Tivo, but MVDP replied the very next day with a unique display of strength (and panache) around Castelfidardo.
If we’re counting points, MVDP has the advantage, but each Classic stands for itself and offers its own challenges to crown a champion. Milano-Sanremo – La Primavera – for instance, is almost 300km long, a unique event in modern cycling, and its tightly cut finale always provides a thrilling battle with an uncertain outcome.
The world’s best sprinters and punchers all dream of victory on Sanremo’s Via Roma. Alaphilippe and Van Aert are the last two riders to have conquered la Primavera. Van der Poel wants his turn. The show will go on.