If anyone can win Paris-Roubaix on their first try, it’s Mathieu Van der Poel

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If everything had gone according to plan, Mathieu Van der Poel would probably be in Japan right now, getting ready for the MTB race at the Tokyo Olympics. But as we all know, 2020 has been a year of things not going according to plan, and professional cycling has been far from immune to the chaos.

There’s been almost no professional road racing since early March and events have either been cancelled or postponed to later in the year. But as of this month, racing is set to begin again and the calendar is jam-packed right through to November.

Mathieu Van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), can’t wait to get back to racing. He’s missed the thrill of competition during lockdown. At the same time, he’s enjoyed the quieter pace of life, and the opportunity to have a few months without the weight of expectation and pressure.

“It was quite a good time, very different from the life I was used to in recent years,” Van der Poel told Het Nieuwsblad this week. “I can not start many races without certain expectations. That’s why I tried to really enjoy the lockdown.”

He’s enjoyed the novelty of being at home at this time of year, and getting to spend time with his girlfriend Roxanne. Still he’s found it strange to have no immediate or long-term goals to work towards. “I had a lot on my program in recent years,” he said.

Van der Poel’s program is about to fill up again. Assuming Romania’s recent spike in coronavirus cases doesn’t scupper the Sibiu Tour (“we are evaluating whether it is wise to go”) he’ll head there at the end of this month as the four-day race’s biggest-ever name. And then it’s into a hectic Italian program starting in early August: Strade Bianche, Il Lombardia, Milan-San Remo, Milano-Torino, Gran Piemonte and finally, in early September, Tirreno-Adriatico. It will be his first appearance at all six races.

He’s also considering a tilt at the European Championships in France on August 26, a race he was second at in 2018.

Van der Poel says he has a “good basic condition” coming into the season restart, but admits he certainly isn’t in top shape. In a season defined by uncertainty and scuppered plans, he won’t be alone in that regard. But come the end of September, with almost two months of solid racing under his belt, Van der Poel will surely be approaching his world-beating best.

The timing will work well: from September 30 through to the end of October he’ll race most of the biggest rescheduled Spring Classics: Fleche Wallonne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Amstel Gold Race, the Tour of Flanders and finally, on October 25, Paris-Roubaix. Of those five races, he’s only previously done the Amstel Gold Race (which he won on debut last year) and the Tour of Flanders.

In a recent interview with La Gazetta dello Sport, Van der Poel’s father, Adrie — a Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner in his own right — said he’d most like to see his son win Paris-Roubaix.

“For me, it’s Paris-Roubaix,” he said. “It’s the most beautiful race. It’s special because you can ride on these cobblestones only once a year.”

As noted, it will be Van der Poel junior’s first outing at the ‘Hell of the North’, a fact that would make a win there all the more spectacular. But as his father points out, his 2019 victories at the Amstel Gold Race, Dwars door Vlaanderen and Brabantse Pijl all came on debut. He was also fourth at his first Tour of Flanders — no mean feat.

In preparation for his Paris-Roubaix debut, Van der Poel went and reconnoitred the cobblestones of northern France late last month.

“That exploration was great fun,” he told Het Nieuwsblad. “I had never ridden those sectors before and now we have done everything after the Forest of Arenberg — the last hundred kilometres, so to speak. Of course I had already heard my teammates’ stories. And they are correct: those cobblestones are really difficult. Some sectors are very poor.

“Does Tom Boonen compare them to a container of glue? I understand what he means. It is very difficult to maintain your speed on such sectors.”

On balance, it’s unlikely Van der Poel will win his first Paris-Roubaix. He might have a huge engine and he might be a three-time cyclocross world champion, but history tells us that winning Paris-Roubaix requires considerable experience in taming the cobbles. Even four-time winner Tom Boonen had three shots at it before victory.

And yet, if any rider could win Paris-Roubaix on his first try, it’s surely Van der Poel — a rider for whom the highly unlikely seems eminently possible. “It seems very difficult to me,” he said of Paris-Roubaix, “and I like difficult races.”

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