THE NATURAL

Mathieu Van der Poel is the most talented bike racer on the planet

words: Neal Rogers

 photography: Cor Vos, Kristof Ramon and Armin Küstenbrück/Scott Sports

The races vary, as do the colors he’s wearing, but the photos look the same. Mathieu Van der Poel’s long arms aloft in a victory salute, a smile across his face, with no one else in the frame.

Sometimes, Van der Poel is wearing the orange national team skinsuit of The Netherlands. Other times, he’s wearing the Dutch national cyclocross champion’s kit, a title he’s won for three consecutive years. For a year, he wore the rainbow stripes of world champion; at age 20, he was the youngest elite men’s world cyclocross champion the discipline had ever seen.

More recently, he’s worn the white-and-red of World Cup series leader. He currently wears the white-and-blue awarded to the European champion, an honor that supersedes his national tricolor jersey. For better or worse, the purple and red of his title sponsor, Beobank, are rarely seen on his skinsuits these days.

This is not, however, a story about Mathieu Van der Poel’s diverse collection of jerseys. Instead it’s a story about a young man who may just be the most talented bike racer on the planet. Van der Poel’s raw horsepower, uncanny technical skill, and youthful confidence — along with improbable world-class genes — have come together to create an athlete unlike any the sport has ever seen.

Take, for example, the week of May 21-28, 2017.

On Sunday, May 21, after starting in 90th position and with about a dozen mountain-bike rides in his legs for the year, Van der Poel finished eighth in the opening round of the UCI XCO World Cup, in Nové Mesto na Morave, Czech Republic. He then raced the UCI 2.HC Baloise Belgium Tour, where, on Thursday, May 25, he won the second stage from a 13-man breakaway group, out-sprinting Belgian national champion and recent Tour of Flanders winner Philippe Gilbert. His longtime cyclocross rival, world champion Wout Van Aert, rounded out the podium.

Van der Poel quit the stage race that evening to return to the mountain-bike World Cup. On Sunday, May 28, in Albstadt, Germany, he started in the front row and finished second to world champion Nino Schurter, just 26 seconds back after a mid-race crash. It’s worth noting that no one beat Schurter at any of the six XCO World Cups in 2017.

“It was a hard fight with Van der Poel,” Schurter said. “I got a bit nervous when he was at the front. I had never raced with him, and this was the first time I saw him race. It is always a bit strange when you have someone with you that you don’t know; where his strengths or weaknesses are. I was glad when I was finally able to drop him.”

A few important details to note here: Van der Poel was 22 years old, and neither road nor mountain-bike racing are his speciality.

A LITTLE CONTEXT

Every so often, an athlete comes along who is just that much more gifted than his or her peers — an athlete who redefines what is possible, while simultaneously making it look effortless. Basketball has Michael Jordan. Surfing has Kelly Slater. Tennis has Serena Williams. Professional cycling has Eddy Merckx, who remains the gold standard, albeit from a bygone era.

In today’s peloton of specialization, Mathieu Van der Poel is that rare athlete capable of winning major races across all disciplines. While this is extremely uncommon in women’s cycling, notably achieved by riders like Marianne Vos and Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, it is unheralded in the modern men’s peloton.

Vos and Ferrand-Prévot are both historically significant riders — Vos the most accomplished woman to ever race a bicycle, while Ferrand-Prevot, who is still just 25, is the only elite rider, male or female, to hold rainbow jerseys across three disciplines at the same time. However just as comparing achievements across disciplines can be problematic, so is comparing the depth of fields, and calendar of events, between men’s and women’s racing.

Perhaps the one WorldTour rider of the modern era who shares Van der Poel’s versatility and raw talent is Peter Sagan, a junior mountain-bike world champion before he launched a road career that has produced 100 pro wins — and three consecutive elite world road titles — by age 27.

Sagan also took a silver medal at the junior cyclocross world championship, and has made no secret for his love of mountain biking. His recent return to the dirt, an attempt at an Olympic mountain-bike medal in Rio de Janeiro in August 2016, was impressive but short lived. Schurter took gold, while Sagan punctured from the lead group on the first of seven laps, just one of three punctures on the day for the Slovakian star. Still, even starting from the back row, Sagan had a legitimate shot at a medal, as did several others who punctured out of contention.

Good effort: Peter Sagan rode surprisingly well on the first lap of the 2016 Olympic mountain-bike race before a puncture took him out of contention.

And while cyclocross demands a lot from its athletes — speed, concentration, and perhaps above all, technique — those skills don’t always translate to the highest levels of road or mountain-bike racing. Just ask Sven Nys or Niels Albert, two stars of cyclocross who never translated that success to other disciplines.

Two recent examples of world cyclocross champions who switched over to the WorldTour peloton with success are Lars Boom and Zdenek Stybar. Both riders have top-10 finishes at Paris-Roubaix, and both have won stages at the Tour de France and Vuelta a España.

Boom, a U23 world time trial champion, won his first elite cyclocross title at age 22. Later that year he won the Dutch elite national road and TT titles, and he switched to road the following season. Stybar took his first elite title at age 24, and repeated the following year, dominating the discipline for two seasons before switching to road. He’s gone on to win races like Strade Bianche and Eneco Tour, with a pair of runner-up finishes in the Roubaix velodrome.

 

Using these riders as a frame of reference, Van der Poel — who was both junior road and cyclocross world champion in 2013 — seems destined for even greater heights.

 

Using these riders as a frame of reference, Van der Poel — who was both junior road and cyclocross world champion in 2013 — seems destined for even greater heights. Neither Boom nor Stybar earned their elite world cyclocross titles at quite such a young age, neither had equivalent road results at such a young age, and neither excelled in mountain-bike racing.

For versatility and raw talent, Sagan is a better reference point, and while Van der Poel won’t likely be winning field sprints, his road potential remains tantalizingly unclear. He’s expressed interest in the Spring Classics, while some view him as a future GC contender.

Mathieu Van der Poel

Mathieu Van der Poel

Team: Beobank-Corendon
Nationality: Netherlands
Resides: Kapellen, Belgium
Date of birth: January 19, 1995
Height: 1.84m (6-foot)
Weight: 75kg (165lb)
Functional Threshold Power (FTP): 400w
World ranking: 1st

Mathieu Van der Poel

Team: Beobank–Corendon

Nationality: Netherlands

Resides: Kapellen, Belgium

Date of birth: January 19, 1995

Height: 1.84m (6-foot)

Weight: 75kg (165lbs)

Functional Threshold Power (FTP): 400 watts

World ranking: 1st

Renaat Schotte, Belgian field reporter for Sporza who has covered cycling for over 20 years, said he sees in Van der Poel more than a cyclocross star who switches over to the road to focus on Flanders and Roubaix.

“I think there is a Grand Tour rider in him,” Schotte said. “I’m quite sure that in the future, if he specializes in road racing, that he will be a contender for GC, there’s no doubt about that if you ask me. The Van der Poel family, and the guys near to him, they don’t talk about that, but somewhere deep down, inside, it’s all about Grand Tour racing, though he will never express that.”

Van der Poel’s road potential will remain untapped for a few more years. In September he announced that he would dedicate himself to cyclocross and mountain-bike racing through the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

“My intention is to go to the Olympic Games,” he said. “That is the highest goal, and cyclocross is not an Olympic discipline. On the road you can also go to the Games, but it’s harder to be selected for that. I’ve already proven on the mountain bike that I can compete in a World Cup race. Whether it’s the same as the Games is hard to say. But I was not super professionally prepared for the World Cup. We can take another step with the right guidance.”

Following the Tokyo Games, Van der Poel will be 25 years old. More on that to come, but first, some background.

A BORN WINNER

Among the list of former world cyclocross champions who excelled on the road is Adrie Van der Poel, Mathieu’s father.

The 1996 world cyclocross champion, Adrie Van der Poel was a classics specialist, a winner at the Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Amstel Gold Race, and Clásica de San Sebastián, with a silver medal behind Greg LeMond at the 1983 World Road Championship, and five silver medals at the World Cyclocross Championships.

Unlike his sons David and Mathieu, however, Adrie focused on road in the beginning of his career, with cyclocross titles coming in his mid-30s. Regardless of the sequence, he is viewed as one of the great Dutch cyclists of his era, if not all time.

However Mathieu Van der Poel’s winning ticket in the genetic lottery dates further back. His grandfather is French cycling legend Raymond Poulidor, winner of the 1964 Vuelta a España, who is perhaps most famous for finishing on the podium eight times at the Tour de France between 1962 and 1976 — a career bookended by the eras of Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx — without ever wearing the yellow jersey.

Though known for his stage racing, Poulidor was an all-rounder, a winner at one-day classics Milan-San Remo and Flèche Wallonne. He stood on the podium of the world road championships on four occasions, though never on the top step. He won the overall twice at Paris-Nice and Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, but his nickname would remain “The Eternal Second.”

An injured Raymond Poulidor holding daughter Corinne — Mathieu Van der Poel’s mother — at the 1968 Tour de France. Photo: La Montagne archives.

Married in 1961, Poulidor and his wife Gisèle had two daughters, Isabelle and Corinne. Gisèle asked her daughters to promise they would not marry bike racers, but when Corinne met Adrie at a Martinique nightclub in 1987, she claimed she didn’t know who he was. Regardless, it was love at first sight, and they married two years later. They had two sons — David, born in 1992, and Mathieu, born in 1995 — and raised them in Belgium, near Antwerp, though they are both Dutch nationals.

Meet the Van der Poels (from left): Mathieu, Adrie, David, and Corinne at the 2010 GP Adrie Van der Poel in Hoogerheide, when Mathieu was 15 and David was 17.

Both sons took up cyclocross racing, with David first to light up the junior category, winning 25 of 30 races in his second season as a junior; he was the 2009-10 junior Cyclocross World Cup series winner, and he finished sixth at the 2016 world championship. But even from a young age, he knew that Mathieu was the more talented of the brothers. Mathieu proved it in his breakthrough 2012-13 junior season, when he started 32 races, and won 32 races, including the world title.

“Mathieu had all the skills, everything was a big playground for him,” David told NRC Handelsblad last year. “He was more daring, he was more graceful, and he could always climb faster than me.”

Sibling rivalry? Mathieu Van der Poel (R) took the 2015 U23 Dutch national title ahead of his older brother David. 

Throughout their young careers, the Van der Poel brothers have always raced on the same team, first under BKCP-Powerplus, more recently with Beobank-Corendon. At time of writing, in mid-November, Mathieu was ranked no.1 in the world; David was ranked 18th.  

And while the Van der Poel brothers attribute much of their success to their father, from a genetic standpoint, it’s likely their mother, and maternal grandfather, are equally responsible. Mitochondria, organelles found in the cells of every complex organism which regulate respiration and energy production, have their own DNA, and are passed down maternally.

Inherited musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory, and nervous systems all play an important role in elite athletic performance. Add to this exposure to the proper training and nurturing required to be a professional cyclist, and Mathieu Van der Poel appears to have hit the familial jackpot.

“You don’t have to look far for an explanation, it’s simply in the genes,” Schotte said. “He’s the grandson of Raymond Poulidor, one of the greatest of his time. And though Adrie Van der Poel wasn’t a born winner, I think that the winning capacity, Mathieu got from his father. I think his father probably has a little bit less talent, but in terms of character, Adrie Van der Poel was really a badass rider. And I think he made the most out of more limited capacities than his son has. Add the Poulidor genes to it, and then you have this extraterrestrial rider.”

“I think that the winning capacity, Mathieu got from his father … Add the Poulidor genes to it, and then you have this extraterrestrial rider.”

Father and son: Adrie Van der Poel, winner of the Tour of Flanders, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and a world cyclocross champion, with son Mathieu, in 2015.

Van der Poel said he still looks to his father for training advice, but to his team manager, former pro Christoph Roodhooft, for professional advice.

“In the beginning, when I was very young and I started racing, it was a big advantage to have someone like my dad who knew what it was like, and he helped me a lot,” he said. “But now, for a few years already I make my own decisions, and, I don’t really need his advice anymore.”

 

What’s perhaps most impressive, however, is that Mathieu Van der Poel’s biggest weapon in cyclocross is not his natural-born engine, but rather his technique, a skill most would view as learned rather than inherited, though that may not be accurate.  Motor skills such as balance, rhythm, and spatial orientation are also viewed as “significantly familial” — look no further than 2012 Supercross champion Eli Tomac, son of 1991 world mountain-bike champion John Tomac.

Marianne Vos knows a bit about being a Dutch star of cyclocross and road, and has known Van der Poel since he was a teenager.

“[Bike handling] is also in the genes, I think,” Vos said. “You have to have the feeling for it, and Mathieu picks it up quite easily. But I wouldn’t say it’s easy for him. He trains a lot. He puts a lot of effort in it. He really lives for cycling. It’s also a hard job for him, but you can see, he enjoys it. And he learns these skills very, very quickly.”

In sync: Mathieu (left) and David Van der Poel during a training session at the 2017 Cyclocross World Championships in Bieles, Luxembourg.

Poulidor, now 81, maintains a frequent presence behind the scenes each July at the Tour de France. In 2014 a Sporza crew filmed a segment with him and his prodigious grandson, who came to visit the race six months after taking his third world junior title, and six months before he took his first elite world title.

“Here is my little phenom,” Poulidor beamed. “Maybe a future Tour winner? He’s already a three-time world champion. His talent is enormous. Everyone is amazed, including his grandfather. He’s stronger than papi [grandfather] and stronger than papa [father]. He’s an extraordinary character. He rides a bike with pleasure and he has huge ambition. Who else is doing it like him? He’s unstoppable.”

Proud Papi: Raymond Poulidor with his grandson the phenom, in 2016.

Perhaps the only thing that can stop Van der Poel is a significant injury, always a possibility in pro cycling. A crash at the 2015 Tour de l’Avenir left him with lingering knee pain, and in October of that year doctors removed inflamed fasciae that covered the patellar tendon, delaying the start of his cyclocross season. Still, he stormed through the second half of the 2015-16 season, all but sweeping the final month of races.

A few mountain-bike crashes ultimately required double knee surgery in July 2016 — on the right for a deep cut, on the left for inflammation — once again delaying the start of his season, explaining why he did not win the World Cup series last year while being ranked No.1 in the world. (He did, however, win seven of eight Hansgrohe Superprestige series events, and the overall title.)

Van der Poel described his knee issues as “a few minor injuries,” explaining that they were always caused by crashes, rather than something more serious. “It was always about the impact, and not really a structural thing, so that’s the positive thing about it,” he said. “It knocked me back a few times, and it cost me some time, but now everything is okay.”

The 2017-18 season was the first in three years that began without a knee surgery. However a crash in the final lap of the November 12 Superprestige Gavere sent him back to his knee surgeon, this time for cleaning, stitches, and an evaluation.

“Another scar on that knee,” he said. “If I fall, it’s on that knee.”

LIFE AT THE FRONT

During the first lap of a major cyclocross race — a World Cup, a Superprestige event, you name it  — the plot tends to follow a script. Mathieu Van der Poel starts on the front row, quickly makes his way to the front of the bunch, slips off the front, and then… he’s gone. Spectators and race commentators let out a collective sigh as it appears the real race is for second place; more often than not, they’re right.

As a general rule, Van der Poel does not like to wait around; he prefers to take control early. Asked if that’s a tactical decision, simply a result of superior strength off the line, or something else, Van der Poel said it’s a bit of both.

“I think it’s something in the moment that feels right,” he said. “It’s difficult to make a plan about it, because if you miss your start, you can’t go full gas first lap. But yes, sometimes when I have a good start and I feel the legs are good, I try to make it a quick first lap. Now that I had a good summer, and I feel in good shape, I can manage to keep the gap and the pace for all the race. And I think that was a little bit the problem the previous years, that I wasn’t strong enough to hold the gap.”

Mathieu Van der Poel starts on the front row, quickly makes his way to the front of the bunch, slips off the front, and then… he’s gone.

Whatever the reason, there’s no question that Van der Poel spends the majority of his time alone, at the front of the race.

“I think it’s the best way, because you can do your own thing when you’re at the front, but you have to be good enough to do it of course, and strong enough to hold it,” he said. “You can keep your own pace and ride your own lines, and that makes it a lot easier.”

Whether it’s bunnyhopping barriers, throwing a tailwhip on a flyover, or popping a wheelie across the finish line, Van der Poel is not just a winner, he’s an entertainer.

This camera time has also added another element to Van der Poel’s racing — showmanship.  Whether it’s bunnyhopping barriers, throwing a tailwhip on a flyover, or popping a wheelie across the finish line, Van der Poel is equal parts professional athlete and a young man who still just takes joy in riding his bike. He’s not just a winner, he’s an entertainer. “It’s not really for the crowds, I think it’s mostly for myself,” he explained. “It’s something I do in training as well, it’s something I enjoy doing. It’s just my style of riding.”

Van der Poel’s professional career has been inextricably tied to his rivalry with Belgian Wout Van Aert. In 2014, Van Aert won the U23 world title, with Van der Poel finishing third. The following year both riders made their debut at the elite world cyclocross championships, though they could have again raced as U23s; they finished first and second. The new generation had arrived. Van Aert went on to win the next two elite titles, though when on form, Van der Poel is the more dominant racer.

The differences between Van der Poel and Van Aert make for a fascinating spectacle. Van der Poel is the superior bike handler; Van Aert is the better runner. Van der Poel is stronger physically; Van Aert appears to be stronger mentally. Whether due to mechanical issues or just having an off day, Van der Poel has, at times, simply sat up and soft-pedaled to the finish. If Van der Poel is at times less of a fighter than van Aert, perhaps it’s because he hasn’t had to race from behind as often.

Regardless of who is winning, what is clear is that immediately following the era of Niels Albert and Sven Nys, who retired in 2014 and 2016 respectively, cyclocross is now dominated by two riders barely out of their teens. A generation of riders in the line of succession — riders like Kevin Pauwels and Tom Meeusen — has been skipped over entirely.

“It comes so fast after the Nys-Albert era. That was about the big duel,” Schotte said. “I don’t think anybody expected to have a duel of this standard so soon. So what lacks for the moment, is that those two guys don’t have the maturity yet of the champs like Niels Albert and Sven Nys at the time. We all knew [Van der Poel and Van Aert] had talent, but we didn’t expect them to be so dominant so early.”

Van der Poel admits that mental resolve can be his biggest weakness.

“My weakness in the past was the running sections, because I could never do running training, especially the uphill sections running, but I think I have improved that as well this year,” Van der Poel said. “Now my biggest weakness may be when I have a really bad day, I don’t keep the fight long enough, and I tend to give up and focus on the next race. For now that doesn’t happen a lot, but when you have a really bad day, maybe I should fight a little bit more, but I immediately think about the next races and try to focus on that.”

It’s no secret, Schotte said, that Van der Poel is more accustomed to — and more comfortable with — racing from the front rather than racing from behind.

“If Mathieu’s shape isn’t 100%, then for him it’s not possible for him to go in 100%, whatever that 100% still is,” Schotte said. “So, I think his character is not as strong as Wout’s is sometimes. And as soon as he’s not having all of his capabilities, all his possibilities, then he starts doubting maybe a bit too quickly. As opposed to Wout, who is really made of character, and even if he’s fighting for second place, he will almost never give up, and he will still try and hope. And if you ask me, that’s the beauty of the current races.”

CARS, DALMATIANS AND FRITES

Growing up the son of Adrie Van der Poel, the grandson of Raymond Poulidor, and a professional himself before he graduated high school, Mathieu Van der Poel has never known a life outside of cycling, nor fame.

He’s also never known a life outside of Belgium. Though he’s a Dutch national, he was born and raised in Kapellen, a leafy neighborhood near Antwerp, and is as honorary a Belgian as it gets. Even in front of the wildest, most raucous Flandrian crowds, Van der Poel is not jeered, a rarity for any Dutch rider — just ask Lars Boom or Richard Groenendaal, or even his father, Adrie.

Last year, a Belgian television crew spent the season following Van der Poel, Van Aert, Laurens Sweeck, and Eli Iserbyt for a reality show titled “Kroonprinsen” or Crown Princes. The weekly series provided a window into their private lives, while at the same time thrusting them even more into the spotlight, making the possibility of having private lives that much more elusive.

It’s for this reason Van der Poel enjoyed his recent trip to the United States for the first two rounds of the World Cup, his first trip to the U.S. since winning the world title in Louisville in 2013. “It was really relaxing,” he said. “I could really do my own thing, and we had a nice group there with the team.”

In addition to Dutch, Van der Poel is also fluent in French and English. He posts in all three languages regularly on Instagram, where he is nearing 100,000 followers.

“Van der Poel is really popular in Belgium,” said Schotte. “If he wouldn’t be popular, the people wouldn’t, during the last lap, give him that round of applause. And they do that every race, when he’s on his way to win it. I think that shows it all. He’s 100% adopted by the Flemish public, and the whole discussion that used to be something in between the old countries between Belgium and Holland doesn’t add to the story of Van der Poel. He’s basically half-Flemish.”

Across the border, among the general population, Van der Poel’s star is still rising.

Of course in the sport he is a big star,” Vos said. “And yeah, his name is growing in the Netherlands. He’s getting more famous. But as cyclocross is not a really big sport in the Netherlands, it will take some more time for him to be a really famous person in the whole country.”

Van der Poel’s public persona can be defined by three things — his love of sports cars, Dalmatians, and frites, likely in that order. He owns three BMWs — an orange 1M, a grigio medio (Ferrari gray) M3, and a silver M5. He closely follows motocross and Formula One racing, and is known to head out on his dirt bike on his “rest days.”

I still got a big smile on my face ???? Video will be online tomorrow! #yellowrocket #ronniemac

A post shared by MVDP (@mathieuvanderpoel) on


“I like to drive cars with a lot of horsepower,” he said. “I think it’s somehow a bit comparable with what we do. You have to be quick in reaction, and you need to have the skills and the ability to keep the car on the road. For now it’s the M models that I own that are the cars with a lot of horsepower. It’s nice to get the back out a bit when you exit a corner. But I’m a big fan of many sports cars, Porsche in particular — that’s more a race car than the M cars.”

One thing Van der Poel is not known for is being a playboy. A consistent source of speculation in Belgium, he’s been single for the majority of his career. “No girlfriend,” he said. “I’m in love with my cars.”

Along with his BMWs, his other love interest seems to be his family’s Dalmatians, Luna and Solly, who appear with him in photos and videos as often as they don’t.

Van der Poel’s dining habits have also made for topic of conversation in Belgium; he dominates the best cyclocross racers in the world without adhering to a strict diet. He prefers a cocktail over a pintje, and he doesn’t shy away from a plate of frites, a Sunday tradition. And that may be getting into his competition’s collective mind.

He prefers a cocktail over a pintje, and he doesn’t shy away from a plate of frites, a Sunday tradition. And that may be getting into his competition’s collective mind.

“When they finish racing on a Sunday, Mathieu then goes for a big one with mayonnaise,” Schotte said. “He’s just an ordinary guy, still eating normal stuff like that in the middle of his cyclocross career. So once he will stop eating fries with mayonnaise, he’ll probably be somewhere in the footsteps of Chris Froome.”

In November 2016, Van der Poel posted a photo of himself eating a plate of frites, and soon after, Sporza commentator Michel Wuyts mentioned it on air — something to the effect of “Mathieu eats what he wants and still beats everyone.” Van Aert followed up by posting a photo of his own plate of frites, with a caption: “Look Michel, I also eat frites.”

Some might classify this as harmless fun on social media between two rivals. Others suggested there was subtle intimidation at work — that Van der Poel holds the mental advantage, and that the nonstop talk of his dominance is chipping away at Van Aert’s confidence as much as what happens on the race course.

In an interview with CyclingTips in September 2016, Van Aert described their relationship as “good.”

That, however, was before the 2016-17 season got heavy. Their simmering rivalry reached a boiling point in the week before the 2017 world championships, over a variety of social-media spats and slights, some perceived and some very real.

MATHIEU, WOUT, AND THE WEIGHT OF THE WORLDS

It started in the weeks before the worlds, when Niels Albert, the two-time world champion who coaches Van Aert’s team, was critical of Adrie Van der Poel’s role working with the world championship race organization in Bieles, Luxembourg. Albert was specifically upset about Van der Poel’s involvement in the course design, given his son’s status.

“I find it strange,” Albert told Het Laatste Nieuws. “Imagine if [QuickStep Floors] team manager Patrick Lefevere was asked for advice on the road world championship parcours. Other riders and team leaders would find that bizarre. I cannot escape the impression that Adrie will outline a course which is to the advantage of his rider in Luxembourg. No rules for that? Can anyone have a say?”

Van der Poel, who grew up idolizing Albert, replied to the HLN article on Twitter. “When Wout became world champion in Hoogerheide on the course that my father had plotted, I did not hear anyone! Always complaining.” He also used the hashtag #janker, which roughly translates to “whiner.”

“This is a typical Dutch word and is not so harshly meant as many have judged,” he explained. “But for the sake of clarity: I am still standing by my response, 100%. A janker is someone who complains a lot, and has a lot of comments. Well, that’s what Niels does in the last few days.”

Mathieu Van der Poel and his father Adrie during a photoshoot in Woensdrecht, the Netherlands, in 2015.

More controversy erupted on Twitter a few weeks later, when Kevin Pauwels, and then Van der Poel, posted photos of their anti-doping forms, showing the box had been checked that they had no Therapeutic Use Exemptions heading into the world championships. The unusual posts led some to believe that it was a thinly veiled reference to Van Aert’s inflamed knee, which had kept him out racing a week prior, and the possibility that the Belgian might have been using a cortisone treatment to treat the inflammation in the build-up to the race.

While allowed in competition with a TUE, cortisone is not allowed without authorization, and is considered a performance-enhancing drug due to its anti-inflammatory properties.

“Quite right, I fully support! # transparency” Van der Poel wrote, mentioning Pauwels’ photo of his anti-doping form. Shortly after, his father Adrie replied “Who follows???”

Van der Poel said that after seeing Pauwels’ tweet, he followed suit to send out a message to anyone that might have suspected his own time away, training in Spain.

“Kevin was the first. I thought that was good of him,” Van der Poel said. “I did it mostly because I did not race the World Cup in Italy and spent two weeks training in Spain. Then people soon start to think anything — that I did that, for example, to use cortisone. This was the ideal way to show that this is not so.”

Van Aert didn’t post his anti-doping form; he didn’t immediately comment, either.

“The story is simple,” Crelan team manager Nick Nuyens told Het Niuewsblad. “Wout is faced with a problem and has a reputable doctor. We will not put somebody’s reputation at stake. The doctor has prescribed a treatment; a TUE is not included. To my knowledge Wout has not recently had any control outside of competition. I do wonder what Mathieu and Kevin want to achieve in this. Is this a way to destabilize Wout?”

Once again, Van der Poel was alone at the front, holding a comfortable lead and poised to win a second world title. Behind, Van Aert rode a measured race over a hilly and slippery course, much of it off-camber, with sharp rocks seemingly everywhere, hidden under mud and ice.

It all came to a head on January 29 in Bieles, and once again, Van der Poel was alone at the front, holding a comfortable lead and poised to win a second world title. Behind, Van Aert rode a measured race over a hilly and slippery course, much of it off-camber, with sharp rocks seemingly everywhere, hidden under mud and ice. He sat sixth after the first lap, made contact with Van der Poel on the fourth of eight laps – the two young rivals exchanging the race lead several times – and then attacked when Van der Poel punctured at the end of the fifth lap.

Van der Poel’s rear puncture — his fourth on the day — would prove to be the decisive moment of the race. It happened a good distance from the mechanical pits, and the young phenom would never see the front again.

Though the gap between Van Aert and Van der Poel was 22 seconds after the Dutch rider’s bike change, it expanded each lap. Van der Poel crossed the line in tears, 44 seconds back, and didn’t stop crying until after the press conference ended. The dissatisfaction is still apparent, 10 months later.

“That was, I think, the biggest disappointment so far in my cycling career,” Van der Poel said. “The year before it was also in Zolder that I couldn’t take the win, and I was really focused on winning in Luxembourg. I had a really good day, and to lose due to some mechanical problems, that’s the last thing you want. And then it’s very difficult to accept it.”

Van der Poel can, of course, take solace in his world ranking, and the number of times he’s beaten Van Aert. In the 12 months heading into the 2017 world championship, Van der Poel bettered Van Aert 16 times, with the Belgian finishing better on eight occasions.  Not even halfway into the 2017-18 season, Van der Poel and Van Aert have faced each other 16 times; Van der Poel has won 13 of those races, Van Aert has won twice, and Lars van der Haar has won once.

“In my opinion you don’t have to wear the rainbow jersey to be the best cyclocross rider,” Van der Poel said. “Of course I think it’s nice that it’s the one day that everything has to be perfect to be it, and it’s something special. But when I’m in a race, I’m not thinking it would’ve been nice if I was wearing the rainbow jersey. I just keep doing my thing and try to win as many races as possible. I prefer to do it in the world champion’s jersey, of course, but, in the Dutch champion’s jersey [now European champion’s jersey] is nice as well.”

Van der Poel called his loss at the 2017 world cyclocross championship, where he led but suffered four punctures, the biggest disappointment of his career. 

As for his relationship with Van Aert, Van der Poel said it’s all a bit overblown by the media, hungry for a story between the two young princes of the sport.

“The press really focus in on the fact that we are more competitors than friends,” he said. “I think it’s correct, but I think we are always friendly, and fair, with each other, and we have respect for each other. I think we also, in one way or another, we have to thank each other, because if there was just one of the two of us, then I think it might be a little bit boring. Cyclocross is depending on duels like the battles between me and Wout.”

Schotte said that from what he’s seen, the respect between the two young riders is authentic.

“I think they get along quite well,” he said. “You notice that in the interview tents, right after the race, when Mathieu has won, which is almost all of the races this season, then Wout then comes into the tents, he always immediately goes for Mathieu Van der Poel, and shakes hands and congratulates him. I think that says a lot. If Van Aert wouldn’t be able to cope with losing against Mathieu, he never would do stuff like that. He would stick in his own world and go to his seat and get clean. But the first thing he does is step towards Mathieu, and congratulate him. And you can see that it’s from the bottom of his heart, it’s a real congrats. It’s not a show.”

The experts speak

“I have to say I’m very impressed the way Mathieu was racing. Especially after doing the Tour of Belgium on the road in between World Cup races. Technically, he’s got it. It would be nice to see him more often in our sport.”

Nino Schurter

“Mathieu has something very special, like a young Peter Sagan. They don’t make them every year.”

Sven Nys

“He’s such a talented bike rider, and very skilled as well. But I think the most important thing is his willpower. When he sets his mind to something, if he’s really going for it, nothing can really stop him.”

Marianne Vos

“I think Mathieu is a really big talent. He’s able to win international races in every discipline. You can see he’s having fun on every bike he touches and every race he is in. This for sure is one of the reasons for his success so far and this will be important if he wants to keep racing all disciplines.”

Pauline Ferrand-Prévot

“He is really high class. You would think that it’s not a surprise when you see from which family he is coming from, but still he must earn it. What makes him so strong in cyclocross is his technical skill. You can see how is he playing with the bike, and how confident he is.”

Zdenek Stybar

“Mathieu is a very friendly guy. When we are outside of the race, we can talk. Of course, we are each other’s biggest rival, so we’re not going to train with each other. We don’t text with each other a lot. It’s not because we don’t like each other, but we need to be very aggressive in the race, so outside of the race, it’s difficult to be very close.”

Wout Van Aert

THE ROAD (SINGLETRACK) LESS TRAVELLED

By the time you’re reading this, Mathieu Van der Poel has won 13 of 16 races in the 2017-18 cyclocross season, including the European championship. He leads the UCI rankings and the World Cup series, with his sights set on the 2018 world championships, followed by a break, and then the 2018 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup series.

It’s an ambitious program, but makes a certain amount of sense for a rider who enjoys racing on dirt, and for a rider who enjoys winning.

Then again, Van der Poel said he only rode his mountain bike “15 or 20 times” in 2017.

“It was just difficult for me, because I also had a busy schedule on the road,” he said. “I always did the road training, and then I started to ride the mountain bike three or four days before the World Cup, when I got there. Then I always rode on my mountain bike to get used to the position again. I don’t need that much time to adapt to another bike, so that’s a big advantage that I have.

“I think the most important thing is to be in good shape, and you have to push as many watts as you can, and that’s the same in every aspect of the sport, if you do road cycling, cyclocross, or mountain biking. You have to be strong and yeah, put out as many watts as you can.”

Almost: Van der Poel came close to beating Nino Schurter at the Albstadt World Cup, finishing just 26 seconds back after a mid-race crash.

And what about the road? The honest truth is that Van der Poel finds road racing a bit, how do you say… boring.

“Some parts of it are boring, yeah,” he said. “There are races that are 200km long, and there’s a little group that goes away at the beginning, and the bunch just controls them, and then it can be a long day. In mountain biking or cyclocross, it’s just full gas from the start, and there’s always something happening, and that’s what I like about it. It’s a more individual sport as well. In mountain bike and cyclocross, 95% of the time the strongest rider is going to win, and in road cycling, sometimes — maybe a lot of times — the strongest doesn’t win. That’s maybe a bit difficult.”

That said, Van der Poel points to his 2013 junior road world championship in Florence, where he soloed away from the field on the final climb up to Fiesole, as perhaps his finest victory.

World champion: Van der Poel took the junior world road title in Florence in 2013, soloing away from the field. It was the second world title he’d won that year.
 

“I think that’s still something I’m really, really proud of,” he said. “Of course it’s just in the junior category, but I started as a big favorite there, and to finish it off in that way, as everyone knew I was going to do, that was a really special feeling to be in that big street, at the end of the racing. To be able to celebrate the victory, with the flag overhead, that is still something special when I think about it.

“Of course in the Belgium Tour, when I beat Gilbert in a sprint, I think when you categorize it, it’s higher than that, but it still feels like something special to be world champion on the road as well in the same year as I was world champion in cyclocross at the junior category.”

Van der Poel’s 2017 multi-discipline success didn’t end with a win ahead of Philippe Gilbert and second to Nino Schurter. In early June he won two stages and the overall at Boucles de la Mayenne, ahead of riders from FDJ, Cofidis, Direct Energie, and Ag2r La Mondiale. A few weeks later, he went on to finish fourth at the UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships, ahead of 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jaroslav Kulhavy. In August, he won the UCI 1.1. Dwars door het Hageland, the “Flemish Strade Bianche.”

It’s natural to assume that races like Strade Bianche, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and Paris-Roubaix are where a Dutch off-road star would shine. But as it’s been with Peter Sagan, it’s also natural to ask — where wouldn’t he shine? Van der Poel is tall (6 foot) and not light (165 pounds) by WorldTour standards. He reports that his Functional Threshold Power is “about 400 watts,” for an estimated power-to-weight ratio of 5.3 watts/kilo — strong enough to compete at the WorldTour, but certainly not on par with the sport’s best climbers, who can generate even more power from a lighter frame.

Then again, Van der Poel is only 22, and he eats frites with mayonnaise.

Then again, Van der Poel is only 22, and he eats frites with mayonnaise.

“For now, I think classics like Paris-Roubaix are the races that I want to race when I’m a bit older,” he said. “Those races are less controlled and straightforward. It’s difficult to say. I haven’t done many races on the road so far, so it’s difficult to say which classic race is going to suit me the best. I think you have to ride them first, and then you can say that. But for now I just do my own thing, and I’m trying to have as much fun as possible. For now, I plan to go for the Olympics, and of course I want to win as much as possible, but I’m not really focusing on one thing in particular.”

Having as much fun as possible, for now, means focusing on cyclocross and mountain biking. It’s a decision Mathieu’s father, Adrie, doesn’t agree with, but has no choice other than to support.

“Some say my father pushes a big stamp on my career,” Van der Poel told De Telegraaf recently. “That is not entirely true. If it was up to him, I would not be focused on the mountain bike now. However, he feels it is important that I do what I like to do. In the end, I’m the one who needs to do it for another ten years. That’s why I think fun should be a priority. You choose the discipline you prefer. On the mountain bike, I have experienced so much fun that this is the most obvious choice for me.”

Schurter said he supports Van der Poel’s decision to aim for an Olympic mountain-bike medal, but he also questions how long he can focus on cyclocross and cross-country.

“Mathieu is a huge talent and he is an awesome rider, no doubt,” Schurter said. “I’m looking forward to ride and battle with him in the upcoming seasons. I’m sure he is going to be one of the favorites and hard to beat. The question is how focused he will be on the mountain bike. If he continues riding cyclocross and mountain bike full gas, I don’t know how long he will last.”

Zdenek Stybar, who jumped from cyclocross to road at age 26, agrees with Van der Poel’s decision to postpone a road career. “I absolutely agree with him to stay with cyclocross and mountain bike through 2020,” Stybar said. “With his class he can come to the road later and now have fun in cyclocross. He is still so young that there is no problem with this at all.”

And just what kind of roadie might Van der Poel be?

“That’s difficult to say,” Vos said. “He’s pretty tall, but he is lightweight. But you wouldn’t say immediately that he’s a GC rider. But he’s also a good time trialist and a good climber, so why not? He’s a really good puncher. He has a good sprint at the end in hard races. And he showed it already, beating Gilbert, beating fast riders in an uphill sprint, in a flat sprint, even. He has good potential for the cobbled classics and yeah, he might think road can be boring, but it can also give him a new challenge when his cyclocross goals are achieved. Maybe when the mountain-bike challenge is also over, then it might be the next step.”

“I think that the most important thing is that he just does what he wants,” she continued. “Of course, it’s good to listen to others, and I can give him advice, his parents will give him advice, his coach will give him advice, and the whole country will think for him. But in the end, it’s his decision and he has to do what he wants. If he wants to stay in cyclocross, well, stay in cyclocross. If he wants to go to mountain bike, then go to mountain bike. And of course, at some point maybe there’s going to be a choice that he regrets later. But anyway, that happens. That’s part of the sport, it also happened to me, it happens to everybody. But you can see he just enjoys riding a bike. Pure passion is what you see when he’s out there in the race. That’s the biggest motivation you can have. The joy he needs to keep, and then his career can last long.”

For Mathieu Van der Poel, winning as much as possible and having as much fun as possible appear to be interchangeable. And for as long as this continues, we can expect his career to last a long time and, perhaps, be truly historic.