Mathieu van der Poel on the sadness of winning in the coronavirus era

While Van der Poel is subdued by the lack of fanfare that met his third rainbow jersey in a row, things like preparing for the Tour de France with a mountain bike training camp will keep him hungry

After Mathieu van der Poel crossed the finish line to claim his third cyclocross world title in a row, there was a quick television interview, podium ceremony, doping control, a brief chat with his parents, and then…nothing.

An hour and a half drive home, which is a long, but doable commute, and then a pizza and bottle of wine with his girlfriend.

That’s what winning is like in this coronavirus era, and when you’ve won as much as Mathieu van der Poel has already in his career, you notice the difference.

“After the finish line it was a strange vibe without the spectators,” Van der Poel told around 40 reporters crammed into a Zoom call on Monday morning. “Everyone was just going home. We couldn’t go to a restaurant or something like that. I didn’t really have a party due to the corona rules.

“It’s a bit sad, to be honest, but I’m happy to be world champion again.”

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The aftermath was as subdued as the build-up. Van der Poel relaxing before the sand and North Sea swell of the Ostend course by playing video games, a favourite past-time of his. After the win there wasn’t even a conversation with the vanquished Wout van Aert, adding it was “pretty obvious” the battle for the rainbow jersey would be between the two strongest riders.

“It’s difficult to place it somewhere,” the 26-year-old said of his third consecutive and fourth world title.

“It’s always special, of course, but the first one was the most special, and the second one because I’d missed out three years in a row so there was pressure on it. But yesterday I was relaxed, and I feel I’m getting better at targeting a race and almost every time I have better legs. That’s satisfying.”

The Dutchman admits the manner in which he won took the victory was lacking. Wout van Aert had stolen a march on his rival, Van der Poel crashing and slipping over the mud and sand as he scrambled to get on the Belgian’s wheel. But then, in an instant, Van der Poel was not just back on terms, but sailing off into the distance, as Van Aert punctured and lost 30 seconds. Van Aert says he couldn’t recover mentally or physically after that incident.

(David Stockman/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

“It was one of the only flat tyres of the whole weekend,” Van der Poel said of Van Aert’s misfortune. “That’s often the thing about sport. It’s not just about the legs but the mechanics, like F1. You don’t want anyone to have a flat tyre, it helped me during the race but I’d have preferred to win without it. We’d have seen a different race. I’ve had my portion of bad luck already in past World Championships. It’s sad that it happens.”

Van der Poel is engaging during the 20 minutes he’s being beamed out from his living room just outside Antwerp, texting in between his answers, which he can afford to do as most questions rarely stray from the well-worn, yet still intriguing storyline of the rivalry with Wout van Aert, which he correctly estimates has transcended cyclocross.

Does he need Wout van Aert to remain interested in a discipline the pair so clearly dominate in order for him to maintain the motivation to compete? Van der Poel has already admitted he’s only really interested in winning the World Championships each year, as he has nothing else to prove other than the annual reminder to everyone that he is number one.

It’s easy to mistake arrogance for unbiased fact, but the other truth, Van der Poel admits, is that the synergy between the two riders is in some way necessary for them to keep surprising us with what is possible. Van der Poel gives the example of the way Van Aert drove the peloton over the mountains of last year’s Tour de France and says he’s now looking to “discover new strengths as well”.

This summer’s French Grand Tour is on Van der Poel’s schedule, but if it was up to him he maybe wouldn’t be riding it. “Yes, I considered skipping the Tour,” Van der Poel admits, his focus is on the mountain bike event at the Tokyo Olympics. “But I think the sponsors and also the team want me to be there, so I understand.”

(Photo by Jasper Jacobs/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

In the way we’ve come to expect the unexpected from Van der Poel, he will prepare for the Tour with a mountain bike training camp in the Italian town of Livigno.

“The Olympics are more important [for me], way more important, than the Tour,” you can hear the horrified gasps emanating from inside ASO’s office. “Switching bikes is something I’m good at but I need the mountain bike skills to be improved again because last year I rode two or three times on my mountain bike and I realised my skills weren’t what they used to be.”

From winning the Tour of Flanders last year, Van der Poel had two weeks off before diving into the winter cyclocross season. Now that’s over, his road season begins with the UAE Tour at the end of this month, before the Italian and spring Classics.

The likes of Philippe Gilbert have raised questions over the longevity of Van der Poel and Van Aert, saying they have “no life except cycling”, the Lotto-Soudal rider not sure how long they’ll be able to continue at their current pace.

Van der Poel disagrees, saying the cyclocross season breaks up the winter a bit, and that he’d rather be in the mud than putting in long, boring hours on the road.

He will now have two weeks off though, but as one Dutch journalist points out, what does “two weeks off” look like in the world of Mathieu van der Poel? Surely, the bike won’t remain untouched in his garage for a whole fortnight?

“Like I said, it’s difficult during coronavirus. Restaurants aren’t open, I can’t see friends. Maybe I’ll do some motocross but I don’t have anything specific planned.

“Because of corona there really is nothing to do, riding our bikes is the main thing, especially now.”

Only the nothing-to-do-ness of Van der Poel’s coronavirus pandemic could include the accumulation of yet more rainbow jerseys.