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People love watching mountain bike racing, Mathieu van der Poel says. Even if he’s not the one competing.
“Some friends and people close to me really enjoy it, it’s watching a new sport for them,” the Dutch rider said in a video conference produced by his Alpecin-Fenix team. “I got a lot of positive comments and also a lot of people are watching mountain biking even if I don’t ride it, they just watch it because they also love it.”
He’s not wrong to assume that he’s also created some converts. Van der Poel has been racing XC MTB in earnest since 2018, and since then has declared that his Olympic goals are on the dirt, not the road.
At last weekend’s racing in Albstadt, Germany, the Dutchman returned to the dirt after nearly two years away from MTB racing. His last World Cup appearance was at Lenzerheide in August of 2019. That season, he won five World Cup short track races (XCC) and three XCO events.
After his first place in the short track at Albstadt last weekend, van der Poel showed that he still dominates in a 20-minute effort. His seventh place finish in Sunday’s XCO proved a point he already knew.
“You can train as long and hard as you want, but to get that specific feeling on a World Cup course it’s just something that comes after races,” he said.
After a race-heavy early season, van der Poel hung up the road bike after the Tour of Flanders to focus on mountain biking. With only one month between the Belgian classic and the opening World Cup, van der Poel didn’t have much time to adjust from training on the road to the trail. It wasn’t a problem.
“For sure the intensity is quite different, but I also have more a bit more fun on the mountain bike than I do on the road bike,” he said. “The technique and the places you can go on the mountain bike are really nice and cool. It doesn’t really feel like training because you’re enjoying yourself that much.”
It’s a good thing that van der Poel is able to find some joy on the mountain bike; the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to focus on many important, and perhaps disparate, goals in one tightly-packed season.
Had the Olympics occurred as planned last year, van der Poel would not have had to balance that ambition with the opportunity that arose for 2021: riding in the Tour de France.
“It would have been better if it was last year,” he said. “Now the program is a bit busy and not ideal for the Olympics maybe, but we have to deal with it. Of course, the COVID situation was a bit shit for everyone. I’m just happy we can race again. I’ll take it and I’ll just try and be as good as possible on the days that matter.”