It’s a dull January day in Belgium and outside a four-star Ghent hotel the slick metallic grey Porsche Panamera stands out among the family hatchbacks. You could be forgiven for thinking that Van Halen are in town, but the fact that there’s room in the back to fit a bike is a clue. The personalised number plate reading MVDP is a dead giveaway.
An altogether different breed of rock star is in attendance. The choice of car mirrors the flamboyance evident in Mathieu van der Poel’s racing. Muscular, powerful, stylish and with a storied heritage, he simply outclasses most of the competition. Style aside, it’s his results sheet that paid for it.
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Undoubtedly the best cyclo-cross racer in the world, his recent World Championship win was his third, the second in successive seasons. At the time of writing he has 15 consecutive wins, losing only once in his last 50 starts — he just peels off hit, after hit, after hit. Alpecin-Fenix team manager and sports director, Christoph Roodhooft, tells us the swagger it has imbued him with is more than just an act.
“He is always happy when he pins on a number and he can play around a bit, he likes to be on the road.
“He brings fun when it’s needed and he’s serious when it’s needed. In pre-race talks he’s serious until all the important things are said and the fun part starts.
“But he’s 25 now, he’s won a lot of things, his life’s changed, he’s not a little boy anymore, but in a lot of things he’s still that little boy, and he always will be.
“Like a rock star, they never end up getting serious.”
Inside the Van der Valk Nazareth hotel, Mathieu van der Poel is holding court. Relaxed, he sits at one end of a hotel conference room table lined on both sides with journalists. A TV camera circles and the conversation is punctuated by the clicking of a photographer’s camera.
Speaking his native Dutch, he talks about the coming spring with humour, sharing jokes and laughs. The 25-year-old is definitely in control, as he has so unerringly been throughout the cyclo-cross season.
Before he switches effortlessly to French to speak with l’Equipe, Cycling Weekly gets its time alone with one of the sport’s superstars.
We’re spoiled for choice for great moments to ask him about. As well as his cyclo-cross dominance he finished last year fifth in the cross-country mountain bike world rankings, starting 12 UCI-classified events and winning 10 of them, most at World Cup level.
He also dispelled any doubts he could take his blistering form from the mud onto the road. There were 10 victories, his dominance of the OVO Energy Tour of Britain crowning a year in which his memorable triumph at Amstel Gold illustrated his sheer class. And it’s there that we start.
“It is the only race finish that still gives me goosebumps when I see the images. It was really something special,” he tells us. “I only started to realise it the week after. You see it on social media, all the people talking about it, and now when people speak to me about the road cycling season it is always about the Amstel Gold Race. For me it was quite important.”
But surely all the wins are special? “It depends on how the victory goes.
If you’re riding with a gap of 30 seconds on the front in a cyclo-cross race, the euphoria is a little bit less than winning Amstel in the final sprint of course, so it changes a lot.”
Perhaps the only blot on his 2019 road copybook was at the Worlds, where having endured the most miserable of conditions, he blew spectacularly when in the lead group and almost came to a standstill in the road. He crawled to the finish, 11 minutes down on Mads Pedersen.
The reason for the failure has not been fully explained, though Roodhooft believes it was nothing more sinister than hunger knock.
“The longer the race, the stronger he gets, we saw that in Amstel,” the Belgian explains. “We saw many riders in Harrogate quitting the race much sooner than him with much more experience than him, so that was not an issue for me, it just happens.
“It was a disappointment for him, it took him a few days. But he forgets quickly, he goes on to the next race and the next goal. He knows very well that nobody gets everything.”
“You can’t win them all,” confirms van der Poel, though only after a long pause. “Of course, on the road it’s much more difficult to win. In cyclo-cross or mountain bike if you’re the best in the race you have a 90 or 95 per cent chance of winning, but in road cycling it’s completely different.”
Attracted to winning
Van der Poel comes from a cycling family and was perhaps destined to be a top cyclist. His father, Adrie, was also cyclo-cross world champion and won two stages of the Tour de France, the Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Amstel Gold some 29 years before his son.
Adrie lends his name to the race that traditionally closes the cyclo-cross World Cup, held in the Dutch town of Hoogerheide, close to where he grew up. Mathieu has won it five times.
His maternal grandfather, Raymond Poulidor, who died late last year, had an even more glittering career than his son-in-law, with eight podium finishes at the Tour de France among a huge number of other successes. However, cycling was not Van der Poel’s only childhood sport — he played football, and briefly tennis before settling on two wheels, with his family never influencing his decisions.
“They supported me from the beginning,” he explains. “I enjoyed playing soccer, and they gave me the chance to enjoy both. My dad was also my coach in soccer so he was fine with me doing the sport I chose, but in the end I think they were happy that I chose cycling.
“I didn’t do any road cycling at that age and in the end I chose cyclo-cross because it was an individual sport and I like to depend only on myself. That made winning a bit more attractive to me.
“Of course, my father had the experience to guide me through the first years of cycling, and it’s easy when your family knows what you’re doing.”
Van der Poel began his winning ways very early, as he grew up taking two junior cyclo-cross rainbow jerseys. Finishing third in the under- 23 World Championships, he jumped to the elites early, taking victory at his first attempt, 12 days after his 20th birthday.
On the road, success also came naturally. After a series of top-10s, he took his first junior UCI victory at 17 years of age, winning the world junior road title the following year.
Grand Tour dilemma
After a busy 2019, van der Poel continues in the same vein this year. With the cross season done, he will head for the Classics on the road before a tilt at the Olympic mountain bike title. Such multi-discipline athletes are increasingly rare in modern cycling, and he and his team are mindful of burnout.
“We monitor everything so we don’t do too much,” van der Poel explains. “I also take some rest during the season where people don’t notice it, but it’s easy to maintain because I love switching bikes, it keeps me fresh in the head, and that is maybe the most important thing.” So how long can he continue racing three disciplines?
“If I want to do a Grand Tour then I think it’s not possible to combine mountain bike and road cycling, so that’s a choice I’m going to have to make. But for now if you just do the Classics and then you switch to mountain bike, I think it’s possible to do it all year round,” he observes, confirming the possibility he will race a three-week event before too long.
With such year-round focus there is time for little else in Van der Poel’s busy schedule. There’s a bit of motocross, and more than a little of playing Fortnite.
“I enjoy playing it. Maybe a bit too much, but it’s a thing I do between training as rest,” he admits with a smile. “In the days before [a big target] you don’t train much and the rest of the day you’re supposed to be on the bed resting, so it’s good to have something in your hands to do.
“I don’t really get stressed, but when you are just laying on your bed you start thinking about the race and when you are doing something like playing Fortnite then it’s not really on your mind.”
What will be on van der Poel’s mind this spring are the Classics where much is expected of him, especially after his fourth place at last year’s Tour of Flanders. Alpecin-Fenix have wildcards to all four Monuments and he is hoping for a big win.
“Of course I have targets, but I don’t do too many races, so I will see how it goes. I think Paris-Roubaix is the one, but winning a big race will do, and trying to show that I can be consistent,” he says, as if trying to control expectations.
Roodhooft is also reticent to predict what his rider will achieve this spring. “Anything can happen if he gets in the same shape and the same mental state as he was last year. His dream is Paris- Roubaix but to be honest it can happen anywhere and I think a lot of people in cycling would agree.”