Preview 2021 Cyclocross World Championships: Battle between Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert

© Photo News / Tim van Wichelen/Cor Vos

The duel of the two currently dominating cyclocross riders enters the next round. Next Sunday, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert will fight for the coveted rainbow jersey. Which one of them will win the title “World Champion” for the fourth time? A preview with cyclocross expert Philipp Walsleben of the 2021 Cyclocross World Championships in the Belgian seaside resort of Ostend:

“The winner will either be Mathieu or Wout, because they are the most strong riders,” of this, van der Poel’s teammate Philipp Walsleben (Team Alpecin-Fenix) is sure. Walsleben himself was a world-class cross rider until 2016, European and World Champion in the Under 23 category and six-time German Cyclocross Champion Elite and has taken a closer look at the course and the favourites for Alpecin Cycling.

The battle for third place will be a bit more open. “Besides Tom Piddock, Toon Aarts could be a podium contender, though he is not yet back to old form this year due to his injury, but also Laurens Sweeck is to be watched,” says Walsleben. Sweeck was Belgian Cyclocross Champion in 2019 on a similarly designed course.

The battle on the beach in the sand could be the determining factor at the World Championships. That’s because parts of the Oostende course run directly along the sea, which also makes it special. Just under a fifth of the 2.9-kilometre lap leads through this terrain.

“There, of course, it will be decisive how much of the sand sections are really rideable and how often and for how long the riders will have to shoulder their bikes and run,” Walsleben explains. Like many other experts, he sees Belgian Wout van Aert at a slight advantage on these running passages.

The Course of the Cyclocross World Championships in Ostend

If you want to get a good impression of the course, there’s a video of the 2017 Belgian National Cross Championships on Youtube, which Wout van Aert won effortlessly. “By the way, I think that was the last big race that took place on this course in the last 20 years,” Walsleben says with a smile. In the video you see the riders grab the barriers along the deep soft sand sections. “I’m curious to see if there will be fixed barriers this time, too, or if barrier tape will be used,” Walsleben says.

As UCI cancelled junior men’s and women’s races because of the Corona pandemic, the sand could still be reasonably firm and not too ploughed through yet. “But the condition of the sand will depend on rainfall, temperature but also on the wind and whether it’ll blow strongly from the sea,” Walsleben says. Very dry sand is the hardest to ride on, as no real lanes form that cross riders love so much,” says “Walse”. 

Besides technique and power, the riders will also need some courage, as they will speed down a 21 percent steep bridge descent at “50 kmph” and “dive” into the sand (box). “On the one hand, you’ll have to give the bike the freedom to find its track in the sand and let it steer, but on the other hand, you’ll have to intervene and steer at the right moment,” Walsleben explains the demanding balancing act.

The choice of tyres could also be decisive. “Cross tyres with a coarse Rhino profile are enormously advantageous in the mud and on grass, e.g., on the horse-racecourse section. These very grippy tyres offer riders a free metre per turn. However, their profile gathers a lot of sand, i.e., it digs really deep into the sand,” says Walsleben. It is quite possible that the riders will opt for the classic so-called semi-profile.

Video: Mathieu van der Poel about the World Championships

Speaking of the horse-racecourse: It makes up the bigger part of the WC course. An uneven 1.5-kilometre-long section that leads over grass and an ash track. “Good technique skills are needed there to find the best line,” explains Walsleben and sees van der Poel at an advantage over van Aert there.

“Mathieu is simply more courageous and more willing to take risks,” says Walsleben, who is friends with the Dutchman and reigning World Champion. But he sees the biggest difference in the attitude of the two, without any judgement involved. “Mathieu wants to have fun on the bike despite all his professionalism, also in races. Wout, on the other hand, looks at racing through a very professional lens.”

Women’s battle: Ceylin Alvarado vs. Lucinda Brand

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One day before the men’s race, it is the women’s turn; and there, too, a member of Team Alpecin-Fenix wants to defend her title: Ceylin Alvarado. The Dutchwoman won the rainbow jersey just over a year ago at the age of only 21. “In Oostende she is also one of the favourites because she got better and better during the season, ”says Walsleben. Alvarado won the last World Cup in Overijse before the Worlds.

See Ceylin del Carmen Alvarados Interview on YouTube.

Her toughest rival is Lucinda Brand, who won three out of four World Cups. “Lucinda is incredibly strong in road races. Although Ceylin has better riding skills off-road, Laura might well score in the sand with both her power and her running strength,” explains Walsleben. Denise Betsema, Clara Honsinger and, of course, the grand dame of cyclocross, Sanne Cant, with her three World Championship titles, also are competitors to be reckoned with.

Schedule 2021 Cyclocross World Championships in Ostend:

1:30 p. m. Men Under 23
3:10 p. m. Women Elite
Sunday – January 31, 2021
1:30 p. m. Women Under 23
3:10 p. m. Men Elite

For more information, please visit the official website of the organiser