The weekly spin: Is Mathieu van der Poel’s race schedule a recipe for burnout?
Mathieu van der Poel just keeps on winning. He’s currently the world cyclocross champion, winner of the Amstel Gold Race (and Dwars door Vlaanderen and Brabantse Pijl), the European mountain-bike champion, and as of Sunday, the winner of six mountain-bike World Cup races this season — four short-track events and two in the Olympic cross-country discipline.
How long can it last?
And more importantly, given his interest in pursuing three disciplines at the highest level, is he at risk of fatigue heading into his primary objective, the 2020 Olympic mountain-bike race in Tokyo?
It’s a question few seem able — or in some cases willing — to answer.
Since he announced the remainder of his 2019 schedule, van der Poel has gone on to win the World Cup short-track event at Les Gets on July 12, the European Championship on July 28, and the World Cup short-track and cross-country events at Val di Sole over the weekend.
His last-lap attack in the XCO race on Sunday was truly a sight to behold, leaving Swiss champion Mathias Flückiger and world champion Nino Schurter unable to respond; he put nearly one minute into Schurter in half of one lap.
He’ll continue with World Cup mountain-bike racing this weekend in Lenzerheide before returning to the road, first with the August 15-18 Arctic Race of Norway, followed by the September 7-14 OVO Energy Tour of Britain, and finally the World Road Championship in Yorkshire on September 29.
Notably, he’s skipping the mountain-bike world championship, held September 1 in Mont Saint-Anne, Canada, to focus on road worlds. His final mountain-bike race of the season will be the Olympic mountain-bike test event in Tokyo on October 6.
At that point, the cyclocross season will be in full swing and he’ll have missed the opening rounds of the Cyclocross World Cup, both held in the United States. The third round of the Cyclocross World Cup, in Tern, Switzerland, takes place on October 20, two weeks after the Olympic mountain-bike test event in Tokyo.
Van der Poel has been going strong throughout 2019, dominating the cyclocross calendar before switching over to road three weeks later. His 2018-19 cyclocross season ran from October 6 through February 17; in total he won 32 of 34 races he started.
Foreshadowing what was to come, he won his first road race of the season, the opening stage of the Tour of Antalya, on February 21. In total, he’s had 15 days of road racing in 2019, and he’s won six times; if not for a finish-line pile-up at Danilith Nokere Koerse on March 20, that figure would almost certainly be seven of 15 road races.
Those road results include WorldTour wins at Amstel Gold Race and Dwars door Vlaanderen, and a fourth-place performance at the Ronde van Vlaanderen that all the markings of a rider capable of winning if not for a crash with 60km remaining in the 266km race.
What makes Van der Poel’s success so impressive is not just his versatility across disciplines, it’s his durability across race seasons. He’s winning against mountain bikers who did not race a full cyclocross season. He’s winning against road racers who are not competing in cyclocross or mountain bike events.
He has taken some rest, but not much. The duration between his Amstel Gold victory on April 21 and his World Cup short-track victory at Albstadt on May 17 was 26 days. The duration between his World Cup victory in Nove Mesto on May 26 and his short-track win in Les Gets on July 12 was 47 days.
Van der Poel is a phenom, that is indisputable. But even phenoms need rest. Even phenoms need an offseason. Fatigue in endurance sports is a real concern, if not in the short term then in the long term.
In 2015, at the age of 23, Frenchwoman Pauline Ferrand-Prévot became the first rider in the history of the sport to simultaneously hold the world title in road, cyclocross and mountain bike title. It was an extraordinary achievement. Since then, she’s dealt with several physical setbacks, including a tibial plateau fracture, sciatica, allergies, and more recently, iliac artery surgery.
And while none of those ailments can be directly tied to fatigue, it’s also true that since that 2015 season, Ferrand-Prévot has not been the same rider. Her 2016 Olympic season ended in tears, as she placed 26th in the road race in Rio de Janeiro and dropped out of the mountain-bike race; she would call her experience “a nightmare.”
“Being world champion in three disciplines in one year may have been the worst thing that ever happened to me,” Ferrand-Prévot wrote on Facebook. “Even injured, I was working harder every day without giving up. I abandoned race after race, thinking my [bad luck] would eventually stop.”
Like Marianne Vos, another rider who achieved success across several disciplines before dealing with fatigue and is now showing signs of her former self, Ferrand-Prévot appears to be reemerging. On Sunday in Val di Sole, she won the Olympic cross-country race, her first World Cup victory in four years.
Van der Poel, winner of the men’s race in Val di Sole, has not yet released his 2020 race schedule. He’s missing the Cyclocross World Cup openers, so the series title won’t likely be in play; it’s possible he’ll take some rest in October and November before targeting the world championship. That would mean, at minimum, racing cyclocross in December and January, leading up to worlds on February 2.
It’s also safe to assume he’ll be racing on the road in March and April, with a focus on the spring classics. The 2020 Amstel Gold Race, held April 19, takes place 99 days before the Olympic mountain-bike race, on July 27. There’s time to rest and recover, but it’s going to need to be managed carefully.
I reached out to van der Poel, and his manager Christoph Roodhooft, to ask if they could clarify when he would take specific rest between October and July, if there are any concerns over cumulative fatigue, and how those concerns might have been discussed or addressed. I received no response, but van der Poel is on record saying, “Tokyo is the reason I started mountain biking in the first place.”
So I reached out to APEX Coaching founder and CEO Neal Henderson, who coached both Rohan Dennis and Evelyn Stevens to UCI Hour Record titles and served as a USA Cycling coaching staff member at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games, to ask a simple question: Is Mathieu van der Poel at risk of overdoing it heading into the 2020 Olympics?
The short answer? Maybe. The longer answer? It’s complicated.
“That always makes things interesting, when you start to look at people who out of the norm, whether it’s a Peter Sagan or a Mathieu van der Poel, people who do things that others haven’t yet,” Henderson said. “Putting normal constraints, what most people would expect to be not possible, for them becomes possible, and a challenge, and something that actually motivates them. So it’s interesting in how to balance those two things — the capacity, and the potential, with the priority. I think if they do a good job, the possibility exists.”
Henderson also coached American Taylor Phinney to fourth-place finishes in the road race and time trial at the 2012 Olympics when Phinney was aged 22, so he knows a thing or two about dealing with young phenoms, and what drives them. In 2010, he coached a 20-year-old Phinney to a second world title in the individual pursuit, a world title in the U23 time trial championship, a national time trial title, and a second win at the Paris–Roubaix Espoirs — all world-class results, across varying terrain and disciplines.
“If you look back at some other athletes in cycling that have been on similar paths — and there’s no one exactly the same — but with some road cyclists who have also raced on the track, with the race seasons it ends up being year round with no minimal to no break,” he said. “There are these windows of time, for a year or two years, where year-round, pretty much all in training and racing, can be done. Whether he should or not, for the long term, that’s really the question. I think there is a possibility of squeezing out high performances in this window, into 2020 — and he’s already had an incredible run of results — but at what cost?”
That said, Henderson added that van der Poel’s age is about perfect to take on this kind of training and racing load; he turns 25 in January. “He’s out of that very early 18-22 phenom phase, he’s into that next phase, his mid-twenties. After that I don’t think this would be as realistic or likely,” he said. “The window for all those pieces comes together for the potential.”
Finally, circling back to the question of cumulative fatigue, Henderson simply said, “It’s possible… but I think a phenom is going to be phenomenal.”
Van der Poel and his support team may have a perfectly timed peak in mind for the Tokyo Games. There may be perfectly good reasons why they prefer not to discuss his 2020 schedule. It’s possible it has something to do with the rumors that van der Poel’s bike sponsor, Canyon, may end its sponsorship of the Katusha-Alpecin team and shift those resources toward boosting his Corendon-Circus team to the WorldTour by 2021.
However if that proves to be true, the team will need results in 2020 to secure a WorldTour license, and van der Poel will need to deliver on the road.
“There’s a big-picture way of looking at things, and depending on how they break it out between his priorities, the team’s priorities, the coaching staff, and how it’s all laid out, there’s an opportunity for him to show up [at the Tokyo Games] and be absolutely at his best,” Henderson said. “There’s also an opportunity that if those things aren’t handled well, then he could come up short. He’s already had a massive schedule, last year and into this year, and had phenomenal accomplishments.”
It’s quite possible Mathieu van der Poel could win road worlds on September 29, the 2020 cyclocross worlds on February 2, and the 2020 Olympic cross-country event on July 27. It’s not hard to imagine him also winning the Tour of Flanders, or Paris-Roubaix, in April. After what he’s accomplished this year I certainly wouldn’t bet against him.
But I would like to know more on how he plans on staying at such a high level for such a long time. And I do know that it would be a shame to see him arrive at the Tokyo Games overdone for what he’s repeatedly stated is — for the moment, at least — his biggest career objective.