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Paris-Roubaix was, as you might have heard, a little bit damp. The brave souls of the peloton trudged their way through the grime and grit of Northern France toward a velodrome in Roubaix, where everyone collapsed en masse in the infield and then limped to some atmospheric shower stalls to clean up.
This year more than most, the Hell of the North was a hell of a spectacle.
But amongst all the drama and intrigue of the race, there was one small, seemingly insignificant detail that was seized on by the viewing public: Mathieu van der Poel’s feet.
Mathieu van der Poel’s shoes are one of Paris-Roubaix biggest mysteries. Just how? pic.twitter.com/fbemmM01iH— José Been (@TourDeJose) October 4, 2021
Now, quite a lot of cyclists wear white shoes, even in races that turn them brown. That in itself is not newsworthy. But there was some particular sorcery to Van der Poel’s champion hooves that was blowing up WhatsApp groups around the world.
When the entire peloton was more mud than man, how did Mathieu van der Poel manage to finish the race with shoes as pristinely white as a suburban dad of advancing years?
The answer, dear reader, is nothing to do with the shoes. Our man was … [dramatic instrumental sting] wearing shoe covers.
But what shoe covers, I hear you cry? The answer is unsatisfactory. We don’t know. The brightest minds of CyclingTips have tried to find out, and we have faltered. That is on us.
But here’s what we do know.
SCENE: a bike race in France
Mathieu van der Poel lined up in the French town of Compiègne with the heavy weight of expectation on his shoulders. It was to be the Dutch star’s first Paris-Roubaix – a race that his grandfather, Raymond Poulidor, finished in the top 10 of on five occasions, and which his father, Adrie van der Poel, finished third at in 1986.
Van der Poel (Mathieu, not Adrie) is not averse to the colour white. He has had the opportunity to wear plenty of it over the years – World Champion jerseys, European champion jerseys, white knicks to match his Dutch champion jerseys. It’s a whole vibe.
Paris-Roubaix is no place for white knicks – even if it’s your schtick, and especially if the conditions were as they were on Sunday – so Van der Poel was very sensibly attired in the navy blue and red of his caffeinated-shampoo-sponsored team. All but for the shoe covers.
Now, I’ve pored over the photographic databases of the Grubers, of Getty, of Cor Vos and of Kramon to see if any of them took a picture of Van der Poel’s feet in Compiègne. None of them did. I won’t hold it against them; it’s a specific hankering.
I did find this tweet, though (photographer unknown):
Mathieu van der Poel sock update 👇 pic.twitter.com/huixwcsn7W— Peter Stuart (@PeterStuart3) October 3, 2021
Observe Van der Poel’s feet. As you can see, there’s a seam down the front. That diagonally-ribbed top bit – the ‘sock’ bit – is apparently not waterproof, or perhaps had an ineffective durable water repellency (DWR) treatment. Either way, you’ve seen the ‘after’ shot. They were not white by day’s end.
The ‘shoe’ bit, though, is a bit more mysterious. It doesn’t seem to absorb moisture, and has a glossy finish. You can also see that it’s a shoe cover from the way it puckers and creases at the toe. It might be hydrophobic, and it might just be a coating that allows mud to slide off it.
Now, I have a confession to make: I was less agog than most of the rest of the world at Mathieu’s Magical Mystery Shoe Covers – both when watching the race and when putting together the gallery afterwards – because I had seen something like them before. In a box at the bottom of my cupboard, in fact.
In that graveyard of forgotten kit lay a pair of Louis Garneau shoe covers that I hadn’t worn in years that had that same Alpine gleam.
Now, to be clear, Van der Poel was not wearing these particular shoe covers. Louis Garneau doesn’t even make them anymore. Van der Poel’s were newer, fancier, and made of two different materials. But if the Garneau Corporation could crack this code 6+ years ago, I think that textile technology has probably advanced to a point of being able to add a top bit.
What I’m trying to say: as a proof of concept, I think we’re in the right ballpark.
So. I had some booties. I had some puddles. I had a head full of questions. It was time to get a bit ‘Mythbusters’ on some niche cycling apparel.
To return to the central thesis underpinning this whole article: Mathieu van der Poel had crisp white feet. They were not his shoes. They were his shoe covers. These are known facts.
But through CyclingTips’ hard-won scientific analysis, we can deduct further: those shoe covers may have been comprised of 52% polyurethane, 30% nylon, 16% spandex and 2% kevlar. Give or take.
If you, too, want to blind people with your feet after a long day splashing about in the mud, that recipe’s probably not a bad place to start.
Update: Attentive commenters have discovered that Van der Poel’s shoe covers were made by a small Dutch company called Aero Cycling Gear. I have not submerged samples in a puddle in my back yard.