Are we witnessing the death of the multi-discipline star?

Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock are all making noises about focusing on the road. Is an era ending?

Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel at Paris-Roubaix 2023
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Good morning, and welcome back to The Leadout, your regular dose of analysis and opinion on Tuesday mornings. Remember, if you want to say hello or have a chat, feel free to email me on adam.becket@futurenet.com.

Over the past few years, one of the thrilling things about modern cycling has been the emergence of multi-discipline cyclists. It was not a new idea, and some of the best female pros of the past decade have excelled in more than one type of cycling (Marianne Vos I’m looking at you), but with the emergence of ‘the big three’ of cyclo-cross, we saw male riders try and do it all.

With Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert, and then Tom Pidcock, we saw riders who had the potential to be world beaters across different disciplines - just look at van der Poel (the first World Champion in cyclo-cross and on the road), and Pidcock (CX and XCO MTB World Champion).

However, it seems it couldn’t last. Road is the biggest goal  for all of these three multi-talented riders, and as a result, perhaps, they are realising that they have to focus a bit more if they are going to fully realise their dreams on tarmac. It’s also where the money and fame is, ultimately, and the history, outside of the Low Countries; CX stubbornly refuses to be as popular away from its heartlands. 

These ‘big three’ have already postponed - and shortened - their cyclo-cross campaigns this season, with van Aert and Pidcock both skipping the World Championships at the beginning of February. Last week, van der Poel went as far as saying the quiet bit out loud, in an interview with WielerFlitsRIDE Magazine.

“The thought of focusing on one discipline crosses my mind,” he said. “We have already discussed it within the team. I don't know how long I'll keep racing. An occasional winter without cyclo-cross would also be nice. 

“Not only to no longer take risks with my back, but also because I actually do cross-country purely for fun. And of course, the [cyclo-cross] world title is still an important goal. I actually see the rest of the season more as a winter activity. There is no longer much for me to gain in terms of sport.”

He’s not wrong. Van der Poel has won well over 100 cyclo-cross races across his career, including five world titles, and there is so much more for him to gain on the road. His team also want to make the most out of their asset, and the route to that is not through CX or mountain bike.

Van Aert is similar, with his coach Mathieu Heijboer saying over the weekend that his CX campaign is just about next year’s road season: “The entire winter is all about performance in the spring. Cyclo-cross is a building block in this.”

The Belgian has won just one Monument to date, and reports of him targeting general classification at the Giro d’Italia do not mix well with a full campaign in the mud of cyclo-cross over winter. If he has bigger goals on the road, then other disciplines will have to be stopped.

Pidcock is similar, yet different. The man from Leeds is younger than van der Poel or van Aert, and as a result still has time to mix and match with his season. However, if he wants to reach his full potential on the road, he might have to forego distractions, even worthy distractions like cross-country mountain biking and cyclo-cross, both of which he has been world champion in already.

His coach, Kurt Bogaerts told Cycling Weekly earlier in November that his charge wanted to head to stage races with more ambition, something that a stuffed-to-the-brim calendar does not necessarily work well for. If Ineos Grenadiers see in Pidcock a future GC option, then it makes sense to mainly stick to road racing at some point. Grand Tour winners don’t tend to get involved in other types of racing, let alone other types of cycling.

While we have celebrated riders who can do it all, we are now seeing riders knuckling down and focusing on one thing on the road. It might just be the end of the multi-discipline star. Just don’t tell the track riders, like Lotte Kopecky.

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