They are probably the greatest all-rounders in cycling history, have been dueling since they were teenagers and make the competition look like pathetic extras in their duels. When the cross-country season reaches its climax on Sunday (3 p.m./Eurosport 2) in front of more than 50,000 fans in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, there is only one question to be answered: Wout van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel? Two years after the enthralling chase across the Oostende beach, the Belgian and the Dutchman meet again for the rainbow jersey at the Brabantse Wal.
"I don't really need the world champion jersey. But it would be exciting to wear it again. It's been a while," says van Aert. The 28-year-old is slightly favored this winter in the World Cup duel with his rival of the same age. In 13 races, van Aert won nine times and was never worse than second. Van der Poel drove one more race and was on the podium twelve times - but there were only six wins. In addition, since his major fall in the mountain bike race at the Tokyo Olympics, he has repeatedly suffered from back problems. "My chances are 50:50, Wout has been in front a lot more this season," says van der Poel.
There is also a very special relationship between van der Poel and Hoogerheide. It's the birthplace of his father Adrie and the race is even named after the once great crosser. And to take it all to the extreme, Adrie van der Poel even planned and marked out the World Cup course. Advantage for the junior? "No, that wouldn't work," says Papa van der Poel.
The special thing about the duel between van Aert and van der Poel is that it takes place almost all year round. While tour winner Jonas Vingegaard subordinates his planning to the Tour of France in the summer or classics specialist John Degenkolb sees the cobblestone hell of Paris-Roubaix as his highlight, van Aert and van der Poel practically do not take a break. They are among the contenders for victory in the spring classics as well as in numerous stages of the Tour.
And in winter it continues on the cross-country bike. Kind of like a relaxation exercise. "These are the only races of the year where nothing is expected of me. I have a great time in winter," says van Aert. Van Aert is a free spirit on the muddy courses, where you always drive for an hour at your maximum heart rate. On the road he often serves his team Jumbo-Visma - and still managed the almost absurd feat of winning a time trial, a sprint stage and a section in the high mountains of the Tour de France.
The role of van der Poel is different. He is the undisputed star of his team, it's all about the two-time Flanders winner. But these duels with van Aert are also the icing on the cake for the Belgian-born Dutchman, the extra motivation. Eleven years ago, just 17 years old, they competed for the World Championship jersey in cross country for the first time in Koksijde. At that time van der Poel won, the face of van Aert in the photos, which are still shared today, speaks volumes.
"We push each other to a higher level," emphasizes van Aert. Two years later, the Belgian hit back in the U23 division. In the elite comparison, van der Poel is now 4: 3 ahead. The relationship between the two mud-slinging superstars is one of cool respect. You don't necessarily go on vacation together, but you can't go on vacation without each other either. It should be a special celebration for van Aert to win the fourth world title on a course set by van der Poel's father.