This year, Mathieu van der Poel is attempting to become the first rider in 55 years to win Paris-Roubaix on race debut.
Although the Dutch star doesn't possess any racing experience at Paris-Roubaix on his CV, he enters as one of the key favourites.
Van der Poel has experienced a wild 2021 campaign. He won the yellow jersey at the Tour de France after an electrifying victory at Strade Bianche earlier in the year, but failed to win a monument at the Tour of Flanders and Milan-San Remo, before crashing out of the mountain bike event at Tokyo 2020.
Since his crash, Van der Poel has experienced back pain, which cast doubts over his first appearance at Paris-Roubaix. He was absent from the Benelux Tour, but returned to road racing for the first time since the Tour de France at the Antwerp Port Classic — a race he won.
Van der Poel competing at Tokyo 2020 (Image credit: Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com)
In a pre-race press conference, Van der Poel was asked whether he is still experiencing issues with his back. “It’s not 100% yet, but it doesn’t disturb me on the bike anymore. I am looking forward to some rest as well and then the problems will be behind me 100%.” Although some back pain remains, the Dutchman is confident it won’t affect his performance at the Hell of the North.
An eighth place finish in the World Championships road race — his most recent performance — suggests his form is trending in the right direction. However, Van der Poel admitted that he was restricted in his riding style. "Everyone that knows me a little bit saw that, in my racing style, I was not able to put in some attacks like I usually do. I hope to do a little bit better on Sunday. We’ll see, it’s a different race as well.”
After Julian Alaphilippe successfully retained the rainbow jersey in Leuven, Belgium's tactics have been closely examined. In Deceuninck-Quick Step's pre-race press conference, team boss Patrick Lefevere said, "We have to absolutely avoid what happened last Sunday [at the world championships] with the Belgium team."
Van der Poel reflected, could he have done anything differently to win the rainbow jersey? “For sure Alaphilippe was pretty strong, but I think if some countries had a different approach, maybe there was something more possible. That’s always afterwards, the race is done and it’s irreversible. We just have to accept it.”
Mathieu van der Poel attacks at the Tour de France (Image credit: Alex Broadway/SWPix.com)
Van der Poel was also asked whether he is looking forward to the prospect of a wet Paris-Roubaix. "I think it's quite cool if it rains. It will be dangerous for sure, but that's always the case at Roubaix. I think you have to be very cautious to avoid a flat tyre or crashing. When it's wet that's even more the case."
Only three of Van der Poel’s Alpecin-Fenix teammates have started at Paris-Roubaix before, but that doesn’t mean they don't have experience of competing for victory. In 2018, Silvan Dillier finished second to Peter Sagan in a sprint around the velodrome. Dillier had joined the early breakaway, which left him in the prime position to join Sagan after he attacked from the favourites group.
As a race debutant, will Van der Poel lean on Dillier for advice? “For sure, he can give some advice. But I think riding on cobbles is something special. When he was second, he also came from the breakaway, so that’s a bit different racing for sure. I think if you do the recon, you already know what to do. The most important thing is to try not to have some bad luck and that’s not always in your own hands.”
Ending his press conference, Van der Poel was asked a simple question — can you win Paris-Roubaix? He replied, “Yes, I think so. There’s a lot possible in a race like this. It’s not like I was really far away in the Worlds either, so I think it should be possible.”
Although Van der Poel continues to experience minor back issues, he is aiming for victory on Sunday.
Cover image: David Stockman/Getty Images