Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock in action at the Nové Město World Cup in May 2021.

Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock are set to square off against XC greats

Three weeks after dropping out of the Tour de France, Mathieu van der Poel joins Tom Pidcock in the Olympic cross country MTB race.

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All-round cycling phenoms Tom Pidcock (Great Britain) and Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands) line up for the Olympic cross country MTB race on Monday afternoon (local time), where they’re both tipped as favourites for the title.

They’ll be up against XC superstars Mathias Flückiger (Switzerland), Ondrej Cink (Czech Republic) – who raced the Tour de France during his one year-stint with Bahrain-Merida in 2017 – and current world champion Jordan Sarrou (France). Defending Olympic Champion Nino Schurter (Switzerland) will also be on the start line, but he’s not had the best run-up to Tokyo.

The race will unfold on a 4.1 km circuit near Izu, in the same location as the velodrome and BMX track, and about 150 km from Tokyo – hopefully far enough away from the worst of Storm Nepartek. There are rock gardens, technical drop-offs, sharp twists and turns, and plenty of climbing, with over 150 m of elevation gain each lap.

Van der Poel made strong appearances at the first two World Cups of the season, but otherwise his preparation for the Olympics has been somewhat unconventional. The Dutch multi-hyphenate headed to Japan after making his Tour de France debut with Alpecin-Fenix, where he won stage 2 and spent six days in the yellow jersey before withdrawing at the start of stage 9. 

He’s not the first rider to race his mountain bike at the Olympics after spending the Tour on skinny tyres. In 2016, then road world champion Peter Sagan (Slovakia) mounted the podium in Paris to collect his fifth green jersey before taking his MTB to Rio. Sagan was in the top three for the whole of the first lap, but a puncture at the beginning of the second put an end to his medal chances.

Pidcock’s build-up to Tokyo has also been complicated, and busy. After ending his cyclocross season at the World Championships in January, the young Brit made a remarkable, but perhaps unsurprising, account of himself at some of the biggest Spring Classics before switching to the mountain bike. Still just 20 years old, Pidcock bested Van der Poel at the first World Cup XCO event in Nové Město, but just a couple of weeks later, he was having his collarbone reassembled following a crash in training. Despite the last-minute misfortune, his Olympic hopes were never in doubt, and he was back on the bike within a week. 

It’s expected that only bad luck can keep the medals from Van der Poel and Pidcock, whose rivalry is sure to make it a hard fought race.

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