There is a photo, exactly eleven years old, that depicts the beginning, indeed the starting shot, of their ongoing feud in the saddle.

A duel that has shaped cycling for quite some time and, according to many, has changed it.

The 2012 photo shows three guys on a World Championship podium.

At the top Mathieu van der Poel, on the silver rank Wout van Aert.

Two boys born within four months of each other, just 40 kilometers apart.

One, Mathieu, in the Netherlands, the other, Wout, in Belgium.

In the picture, both look younger than their 17 years.

Eleven years ago in Koksijde, van der Poel took a 1-0 lead in their duel for the cyclocross world title.

"We push each other to a higher level," says van Aert about the duel.

Just the name of the other on the starting list seems to motivate both of them to get the most out of themselves.

It's been like this for over a decade - with the juniors, in the U23s and in the professional area - and there is no end in sight.

4: 3 for van der Poel

This Sunday (3 p.m.) in the Dutch town of Hoogerheide, when this year’s title fights in cross country, the winter cross-country variant of cycling, begin, then the two exceptional riders have had all the world championship titles in the men’s races since 2015 (exception: at the event last year in the USA were both not at the start) divided among themselves.

It is currently 4: 3 for van der Poel.

The next big duel between the flying Dutchman and the furious Belgian is to be expected.

Their duel, which was feverishly pursued in their home countries, began off-road.

The action-packed cross races last almost an hour on a circuit that mostly includes lawns and ramps, hills and stairs and often leaves the protagonists covered in mud when they reach the finish line.

But their duel has long since shifted to the street.

Their cross origins – their steering skills, their power, their explosiveness, their courage to take risks – also benefited the two great talents on asphalt.

The old rule that in cycling you have to concentrate on one discipline and the highlights of the year there has both turned ad absurdum.

Van der Poel is also competitive when it comes to mountain biking in the world class.

Super all-rounder, Van Aert has managed to take stage wins in the sprint, time trial and high mountains of the Tour de France.

Both wore the yellow jersey at the Tour of France.

Van Aert, who drives for the often victorious top team Jumbo-Visma, has the edge over his rival in that he consistently achieves a top result at every race start.

Unlike van Aert, van der Poel, to whom his smaller racing team Alpecin-Deceuninck is completely geared, has already triumphed twice at the enormously prestigious Tour of Flanders.

Once, in 2020, in an epic duel for centimeters against his permanent rival.

Competitors in road cycling have often painted the image that when one of the two accelerates, it feels like bike against bike.