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Dutch phenomenon Mathieu Van der Poel has made a name for himself over his accomplished career as a triple threat – a racer that on his day is one of the best in the world on the road, on a CX course and on a mountain bike.
For several years, that diversity was a balancing act with an end-date. Van der Poel had announced that he was all-in for the cross country mountain bike event at the Tokyo Olympics, and would then step back from the discipline to focus on road and cyclocross, with a medium-term objective of tackling Grand Tours.
However, current events have changed that. Following the COVID-19-induced Olympic Games postponement and curtailment of most of the race season, Van der Poel has announced he will continue racing mountain bikes until the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
In an interview with Wielerflits.nl, Van der Poel confirmed that he’d changed his mind on stepping away from the mountain bike. “I want to continue to combine the three disciplines,” he said. “As it looks now, I’ll stay on the mountain bike until Paris. That also gives me three more years to try and become world champion in that discipline. I really love mountain biking.”
Van der Poel had hoped that his Alpecin-Fenix road squad would receive a wildcard for the Vuelta a España – currently slated for late October – but the squad was left out in the cold in favour of two Spanish teams. A play for a berth at the rescheduled Tour de France also went unrewarded.
That means that Van der Poel’s Grand Tour debut will have to wait a while longer – and likely allows the Dutchman to concentrate on the abbreviated mountain bike season later this year, before switching back to the ‘cross bike over the winter.
Van der Poel’s dominance in cyclocross has been well established for a number of years, but 2019 was a breakthrough season on the road for the now-25 year old. Along the way, Van der Poel scooped a jawdropping win at Amstel Gold, along with Dwars door Vlaandern and Brabantse Pijl, before claiming three rounds of the MTB World Cup, winning the Tour of Britain on the road later in the year, and just falling out of contention in the Road World Championships at the end of the season.
Now, it appears Van der Poel has reached an arrangement with Alpecin-Fenix’s management to allow him to continue to split his time across all three disciplines until the 2024 season.
“Normally, the focus would have moved very quickly to the Grand Tours, to try to ride a Grand Tour for two to three years,” he told Wielerflits. “Then I can switch back to mountain biking and ride some more World Cups in between which can be combined with a Grand Tour. That way I can stay at the top of the ranking,” before returning to cyclocross over the winter.
Which sounds so simple (if you’re Mathieu Van der Poel).
The Dutchman’s level of multidisciplinary success is vanishingly rare, but not completely without precedent. In 2015, at the age of 23, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot held world championships in cyclocross, mountain bike and on the road – an achievement that she described as having morphed into a “nightmare”. “Being world champion in three disciplines in one year may have been the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she wrote, having struggled with injury and results throughout the following season.”
That hasn’t put Mathieu Van der Poel off from trying to emulate Ferrand-Prévot’s success, and in the Wielerflits interview he seemed resolute in his quest for as much success across as many disciplines as possible, for the foreseeable future.
“The unique thing that I do – combining mountain biking, road cycling and cyclocross – is something I don’t want to easily give up,” he said. “I want to try to keep going for as long as I can.”
Depending on whether he succeeds, or falters due to his ambition, that’s either a terrifying prospect or a glimmer of hope for his rivals.