No Amount Of Pain Could Keep Mathieu van der Poel From His Masterpiece
4:54 PM EDT on August 7, 2023
The clicking swarm of photographers at the finish line of the 2023 World Cycling Championships in Glasgow sought to capture something ephemeral and something physical: the way Mathieu van der Poel wore the jubilation and pain of triumphing at one of the hardest road Worlds courses in cycling history, yes, but also, the state of his bloodied right leg. How was it possible for the Dutch superstar to have blown away such an elite field by such a daunting margin despite such obvious damage? Just how mangled were van der Poel's body and equipment? Not enough to keep him from a stunning victory in one of the best one-day races in years.
The closer we got to Sunday's elite men's race, the more nervous and agitated the peloton got, for they'd have to tackle easily the most openly adversarial parcours of the season. Not only did they have to race 128 tough kilometers from Edinburgh to Glasgow, they would have to tackle 10 circuits of downtown Glasgow, each circuit 14.3 kilometers long with a few wall-like punchy street climbs and more than 40 corners per circuit. To the pros, that level of danger crossed the line, making the course more like a kermesse, a European style of long criterium, than a traditional road race.
"I don't think it's a World Championship course," French coach Thomas Voeckler said. "It's a Criterium course when we're at the World Championships." Tiesj Benoot said it was the least beautiful Worlds course he'd ever seen, while Florian Senechal called it "dangerous" and disrespectful to riders. "I had never seen such a course before. We will have to be at the front of the peloton with as many corners for 10 laps," said former two-time World Champion Julian Alaphilippe. "The person who designed this course has problems. They were perhaps drunk and nobody told them they’ve gone too far with the craziness," said his teammate (and notorious cool guy) Benoit Cosnefroy.
Naturally, it rained on race day, compounding the challenge of going around all those tight corners. At least everyone had to face the same conditions, which were given an extra hour to sap riders' energy when anti-climate change protestors glued themselves to the road to protest both the Scottish government granting licenses for new oil and gas drilling, as well as "evil corporations like Shell and Ineos" being allowed to sponsor the race. By the time the race got to Glasgow, the course had ravaged the peloton, leaving fewer than 40 riders in the main bunch. The shrinking group incentivized aggressive racing, and the Belgians took several cracks at forcing the selection, with Tadej Pogacar and Mads Pedersen also testing the will of the chasers. That talented little scamp Alberto Bettiol eventually got away and enjoyed a solo 33-kilometer ride out in front of the peloton, though once a chasing group containing four of the best six riders in the world, it was clear he was doomed.
Right as van der Poel, Pogacar, Pedersen, and Wout van Aert positioned themselves to catch Bettiol on one of the smaller hills on the circuit, van der Poel pounced. The 20-percent gradient on Montrose Street was the obvious place to attack, and the Dutchman probably caught his breakmates by surprise by going when he did, with sufficient ferocity to instantly put a huge gap into everyone. Van Aert was the last to crack, slumping over as van der Poel took off.
With 22 hard kilometers still to race, van der Poel could have been caught if he was pursued by a larger group or if the trio behind him wasn't so clearly drained. All he had to do was stay upright through the 60-or-so corners remaining in the race. He did not do so. Shortly after building up a 30-second lead on his pursuers, van der Poel's rear wheel slipped out from under him on a right-hander.
It doesn't feel like an overstatement to say that the vast majority of the professional peloton wouldn't have been able to shake that off as van der Poel did, since only van Aert has him matched as a technician on the bike. His instant reaction to unclip and kick his right foot down probably saved his race, preventing a much harder fall at the cost of mangling his right shoe. Van der Poel popped back up, sporting a ripped jersey, a big gouge under his knee, a torn-off boa dial on his shoe, and only two-thirds of the walking cleats on his shoe. That last bit is less visually jarring than the missing dial or all that blood, though it's far more critical. Had van der Poel wiggled his foot wrong on a tough corner, he'd lose his pedal or worse. He then had to throw down a huge effort on the final circuit without one of the six pieces of plastic connecting his body to the bike. Naturally, he added a whole extra minute to his cushion. That is a freakish performance; the unadulterated power van der Poel applies to crush his rivals is a spectacle every time he throws down a solo effort, and the crash couldn't stymie him. It only made his effort more impressive.
The win made van der Poel the only man to ever win gold at both cyclocross and road World Championships, which would be impressive even if he weren't currently holding both titles. He will line up at the mountain bike Worlds in England this week to try to go for the triple crown, though he doesn't really even need to win a third rainbow jersey to cement himself as the greatest-one-day cross-discipline rider of his generation. Even van Aert, his eternal rival, admitted that he couldn't even be disappointed with silver (his fourth in six tries at the Worlds road race and time trial), since van der Poel was simply too strong for him to seriously contend with. That rivalry will continue, since both men are only 28, though time and again, van der Poel has shown himself to be the more rugged, unbreakable rider.
For someone so hungry to win every race he possibly can, his tone after Worlds marked a serious change in how he discusses himself. "Almost completes my career in my opinion, for me it’s maybe the biggest victory on the road," he said. "I can’t imagine yet riding in the rainbows for a year." He'll get to sport the famed jersey all season, and as satisfied as he is, you can bet he'll honor the stripes and win a million more races next year.