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A Rivalry Built on Respect

By Sadhbh O'Shea | Images by Ashley Gruber & Jered Gruber

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The 2020 classics campaign blew by in an instant, wrapping up at the Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne on Wednesday just three weeks after it started at Fleche Wallone. With all of the drama at the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España, it already seems like it happened months ago.

By Sadhbh O’Shea | Images by Ashley Gruber & Jered Gruber

What the classics lacked in quantity it delivered in quality. From the dramatic, to the sublime, to the absolutely ridiculous, this year’s classics had it all. One detail in particular that helped to ignite the scant cobbled races we had was the rivalry between Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert.

From Eddy Merckx versus Roger De Vlaeminck, Chris Evert against Martina Navratilova and Muhammed Ali versus Joe Frazier, rivalries have enlivened professional sport down the years. Watching two seemly matched sporting talents go up against can be enthralling and engrossing. Beating each other adds more shine to the win somehow and it can push both to become even better than they might have unchallenged.

In the words of basketball coach Mike Kryzewski: “Great rivalries don’t have to be built on hatred, they’re built on respect, a respect for excellence.”

The ongoing duel between van der Poel and van Aert appears, at least from the outside, like one of the latter — despite how their words were portrayed in the Dutch and Belgian press after a disappointing Gent-Wevelgem. A short video taken by a photographer Patrick Brunt after the finish of the Tour of Flanders showed a fleeting moment that was not picked up by ordinary television cameras. Both put an arm around the other’s shoulder, one in consolation and the other in congratulations.

Mathieu van der poel (left) and Wout van Aert in the sprint finish for the Tour of Flanders, which would be decided by centimeters. Image: Gruber Images.

Later asked what he and van der Poel had discussed during their long break at the Tour of Flanders, van Aert joked: “We had a lot of chat during the race, we went through all the newspaper articles this week.”

Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad wrote afterwards that “The most beautiful moment of the Tour of Flanders was not shown on TV”.

At times it might seem that the pair has been around for as long as we can remember, and it can be easy to forget that van Aert is just 26 and van der Poel is 25. The two have grown up together in front of the glare of their respective national medias, duking it out in the mud of cyclocross. From the junior ranks all the way through to the elite level, they continued to come up against each other, and if one didn’t win then it would probably be the other.

After winning all they could in the fields of Belgium and the Netherlands, they turned their focus to the road at similar times. Since then, we have seen glimpses of their former rivalry, but it did not properly come to fruition until this year. van Aert stole most of the headlines early on with his monument win at Milan-San Remo and victories at Strade Bianche, Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de France, but van der Poel’s success at Tirreno-Adriatico and the BinckBank Tour showed the Dutchman was right on course for the classics.

Going into the short-lived cobbled classics, it seemed destined then that their cyclocross rivalry would reignite in spectacular fashion. Too concerned with what the other was doing, it faltered at Gent-Wevelgem, much to the public frustration of van Aert. Never mind, though, the big day was still to come and boy would we be treated to a spectacular show of strength from the duo. Though it was disappointing to see Julian Alaphilippe crash out of the race, it seemed fitting that van Aert and van der Poel would go up against each other in this title fight. In the end they were split by only a few centimeters on the line and it felt even more of a shame that we didn’t get to see them have at it again on the Paris-Roubaix cobbles. What a treat that would have been.

Not since the heady days of Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara have we had a budding rivalry such as this. Unlike their older counterparts, between them it seems that they could win every monument on the calendar. Throw in the panache of Alaphilippe and we have a making of an exciting three-way tussle at each of the major one-day races in the coming years.

A proper rivalry, whether it be between two or three riders, has a way of enriching a sporting contest. Long may this one continue.

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