Mathieu van der Poel is a few minutes late to our video call because he’s in an appointment with an osteopath. It’s a fitting representation of what the Dutchman’s life during training camp for the next few weeks will look like: days shaped by training, recovering and receiving treatment for his back.
“Now I’m in Spain, we'll invest a lot of time and energy again to get the back fixed,” Van der Poel says. “It's been an issue since my crash in the Olympics but I’ve tried to work on it as best as possible to be in shape for the Worlds.”
The dreaded day in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic XCO race which Van der Poel references had repercussions that have followed the Dutch rider ever since. No one will remember it better than him: the way the bike flew out of his grasp and clattered down the rocks beneath him, how he tumbled like a rag doll behind it and was able to stand up straight away, but then had to gather himself by the side of the track, shaken and surprised, mouth grimacing in agony.
Van der Poel before the Val di Sole UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup (Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)
Since then, injuries have followed Van der Poel like a bad smell. The back pain has kept returning, and a separate knee injury forced the Alpecin-Deceuninck rider to have surgery at the start of 2022 to remove scar tissue. Wins in the Tour of Flanders and in the Giro d’Italia last year looked like a sure sign that Van der Poel was back to his best, but those tell-tale indications of returned discomfort in his back came to light again in recent cyclo-cross races.
At the Zonhoven World Cup last week, the 27-year-old could be seen getting out of the saddle to stretch his back during the race, eventually finishing a distant second to Wout van Aert. “It’s not going how I like it. My back is hurting again and it’s a bit frustrating,” he said after the race. “It’s not fun to race 'cross at the moment.”
Naturally, Van der Poel’s performance and words in Zonhoven has raised some questions about his participation in the World Championships that take place at the start of February. Many fans were expecting – and hoping for – a big showdown between the Dutch rider and his long-time rival, Wout van Aert, but even Van der Poel himself is realistic about the likelihood of this happening if he can’t get his injury under control during his training camp.
“It will be difficult [to beat Van Aert],” Van der Poel admits. “But it's always been like this. I need to be on my top level to beat him. It's the same the other way around, of course. I hope we are both in good health at the start. We will see who is the strongest that day.”
It’s true that throughout this cyclo-cross season, the two riders have been virtually evenly matched. Van der Poel won in the World Cup in Antwerp, then Van Aert took the spoils at the Exact Cross in Mol a few days later. Then, it was back to Van der Poel taking victory at the World Cup in Gavere but Van Aert beat him in the Superprestige in Zolder a day later. Azencross at the end of December was won by the Belgian, but Van der Poel won at the X2O Trofee in Herentals afterwards. Each rider’s form has been yo-yoing, and, until Van der Poel’s recent back problems emerged, it would have been hard to place a confident bet on one to beat the other. Such a hard-fought rivalry undoubtedly impacts their personal relationship, and Van der Poel speaks openly about how they will probably never be close friends.
“I think there's mutual respect between us but it's difficult to be best friends,” he says. “We are each other's rivals and I think that a lot of times if we can beat each other, we can win the race, so it makes it difficult to really be friends but I think there's always some respect between us.”
Van der Poel, Pidcock and Van Aert on the podium after the SuperPrestige in Diegem (Image: Nico Vereecken/PN/Cor Vos/SWpix)
The third prong to Van der Poel and Van Aert’s cyclo-cross rivalry is often the young British talent, Tom Pidcock. Many describe the trio as “the big three” in cyclo-cross, as they regularly ride away from the rest of the field, seemingly in a league of their own. I wonder if Van der Poel can put his finger on what makes them stand out from the other riders in the field.
“We have the benefit of doing the big races on the road, we did some Grand Tours and I think that makes you a better rider in the end,” he says, “It helps you as well, as strange as it seems, to be better in cyclo-cross, because the engine is bigger after the road season and if you then do some specific training, that makes you a better rider.”
Van der Poel also attributes a lot of his personal success to his happiness on Alpecin-Deceuninck, a team he has been part of for close to a decade. “I feel at home here and it's a really familial atmosphere,” he says. “I've seen it grow from quite a cool project and we’ve now gone up to the WorldTour, the highest level of cycling. It was cool to see it grow from a small cyclo-cross team to what we have now.”
The Dutch team has dedicated huge resources to keep Van der Poel as a part of its setup, and will continue to do so despite his recent setbacks. Looking aheard to the future, Van der Poel says his ultimate dream is to win the World Championships road race – a goal he is motivated to reach before his career is complete. Short term, though, no one knows how the weeks ahead will go for Van der Poel, or if the osteopath treatment he’s receiving will have enough of an impact to put him in winning condition for the cyclo-cross Worlds in just over two weeks' time.
Admirably, however, the Dutchman remains confident and calm about his situation, appearing level-headed and optimistic. “It would be easy if everything always goes to plan,” he says with a smile. “The last few years, I've had some problems with the back and that's frustrating, for sure, but you always try to make the best out of it and try to be ready for the next challenge.”
Cover image: Nico Vereecken/PN/Cor Vos/SWpix