Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) during the 17th Superprestige Heusden-Zolder 2021, his second race back on the CX bike.

Van der Poel’s back issue persists, putting his world champs defence in doubt

After over a decade of juggling disciplines, Mathieu van der Poel’s physio says, “His body is now paying the price.”

Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.

Jump To Comments

Current cyclocross world champion Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) is continuing to struggle with the back injury he picked up in that fall during the MTB race at the Tokyo Olympics, putting a fourth consecutive World Championship title in doubt.

After finishing second behind Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) in Dendermonde on Boxing Day, Van der Poel recorded a DNF in his second race back, before one day later announcing he wouldn’t start the next few races due to worsening back pain, which a medical exam showed was due to a swelling on an intervertebral disc.

“It’s frustrating, but it is what it is,” Van der Poel said in the team’s social media announcement. “The problem has been there for some time, and I’m somewhat relieved that there is an identifiable cause that can be remedied with extra rest and treatment. Everyone knows that the World Championships in the US is the first big goal of 2022, but it is certainly not the only or the last one. I want to recover first.”

The four-time world champion has just four weeks to rest, recover, and return to form between now and the World Championships in Fayetteville on January 30. And with his appearances at X20 Trofee Loenhout (Dec 30) and tomorrow’s Hulst World Cup (Jan 2) scratched, Van der Poel has only four more CX races on his lightweight winter program.

Mathieu van der Poel celebrates winning his fourth elite world title in the sand of Oostende, January 2021.

“It is a bit early to think about the world championships now, but of course it is true that there is not much time left,” Van der Poel’s physio David Bombeke told Het Nieuwsblad. “If you ride the worlds, you have to be good and, in my view, a month is a fairly short time frame to get in top shape … rest should really be the priority now, no matter how much time it takes.”

Bombeke’s reluctant assessment was echoed by Alpecin-Fenix team boss Christoph Roodhooft in a separate interview.

“The big problem is not that he has to miss cyclocross, but that Mathieu is not pain-free,” Roodhooft told Het Nieuwsblad. “Because of that nagging pain, he does not have his full capabilities. Moreover, Mathieu cannot train to get better. That’s terribly annoying.”

Van der Poel chases his nemesis, the so-far unbeaten Wout van Aert through the sand of Dendermonde on Boxing Day, his first race back after a delayed return to racing.

With a hefty schedule of cyclocross, road racing and mountain biking, Van der Poel is one of the busiest bike racers on the planet. While some of his road contemporaries enjoy months of downtime on top of their indulgent off-season, Van der Poel takes only a brief holiday before tackling the cyclocross season – when he’s not juggling a back injury – and then it’s straight back onto the road for the Spring Classics.

“This is actually the result of the many attacks he has committed on his body, from mountain biking to road cycling, to cyclo-cross and BMX in the past,” Bombeke said. “His body is now paying the price.” 

Despite the potentially lengthy recovery that his back issue is going to demand, it’s not thought to be a career-threatening injury. Both his own physio and chief physician of the Belgian Olympic Committee Johan Bellemans have judged that the Dutch champion should bounce back after a significant period of rest.

Van der Poel’s next date with the CX bike is meant to be at X20 Trofee Herentals on January 5, just nine days after his Heusden-Zolder DNF. The good news is that the 26-year-old is already back on the pedals, joining the world’s many other fresh-starters by heading out for a swift 61-km ride on New Year’s Day.

Editors' Picks