By Graham Healy
Dutch rider Adri van der Poel built up a pretty impressive palmares during his career. Amongst his victories were the Tour of Flanders in 1986, Liège–Bastogne–Liège in 1988, Amstel Gold in 1990 in addition to two stages of the Tour de France.
However, one race that was missing from his list of victories and that he had come so close to taking the win in was the World Cyclocross Championships.
Van der Poel’s first podium placing in the Worlds was in 1985 when he finished 2nd behind the German Klaus-Peter Thaler in Munich. He claimed the silver medal again in 1988 behind Pascal Richard in Hägendorf, Switzerland which was the first of a run of four consecutive second places.
However, it wasn’t just one rider who was continuously beating Van der Poel to the top spot. In addition to Thaler and Richard, the Dutchman also lost out to Danny de Bie, Henk Baars and Radomir Simunek.
The defeat in 1991 to Simunek was particularly difficult to take as he seemed to be the strongest but was unable to shake off the Czech rider who outsprinted him for the gold medal.
In addition to his silver medals, Van der Poel also took a bronze in Leeds in 1992 behind Mike Kluge and Carl Camrda.
By the time of the 1996 World Championships, there was nothing to suggest that Van der Poel would finally take the win. At this stage, he was 36 years-old and his powers on the road had certainly waned from his best years. One thing that did stand in his favour now though was that he was now concentrating fully on cyclocross.
The Worlds were taking place in Montreuil in France that year and with frozen ground, it would result in a fast open race. The clear favourite going into the race was the Italian rider Luca Bramati who had won both the Superprestige series and World Cup that season. The 1995 winner, Dieter Runkel of Switzerland, was also amongst the favourites.
Van der Poel was determined though to make amends for his previous near misses and finally win the rainbow jersey.
“I was 36 and realized it’s now or never, all or nothing,” Van der Poel said afterwards. “Like Richard Groenendaal, I was under contract with Rabobank. We had an agreement not to ride in the wheels. And until the final lap I was spared any setbacks.”
The lead changed hands numerous times during the race, but nobody could get a decent gap. Van der Poel’s team-mate Richard Groenendael did get clear for a time but was pulled back by Bramati and his team-mate Daniele Pontoni.
Coming into the last lap, there were still ten riders in contention. As well as Van der Poel, Bramati, Pontoni and Groenendael, also in the group was Swiss rider Beat Wabel, Belgium’s Erwin Vervecken, Emmanuel Magnien of France and Dane Henrik Djernis amongst others.
However, Wabel crashed on a corner splintering the group somewhat. Van der Poel went to the front and put the pressure on. Pontoni’s foot slipped on his pedal and lost some momentum as Van der Poel and Bramati went clear. Van der Poel did all of the work in the closing stages as Pontoni tried to bridge across to the duo.
“Only Bramati could follow,” Van der Poel explained, “but our Italian friend refused to do any work. He probably thought he would be outgunned in a sprint with me.”
“Erwin Vervecken tried to connect to get across, but failed. Three hundred meters before the line Pontoni joined Bramati and I. I was scared stiff. I took the risk of leading out the final sprint.”
Van der Poel was first around the final corner and neither Italian could come close to him in the sprint finish. He had finally taken the rainbow jersey.
His year in the rainbow jersey was particularly impressive as he won fourteen races the following winter, in addition to the overall classification of the Super Prestige Cyclo-Cross and the World Cup. He rode four more seasons before finally retiring at the age of 40. Nineteen years later, Van der Poel’s son would also be crowned World Champion making the pair the first father and son to win the race.