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Is a “fresher” Mathieu van der Poel more dangerous than ever?
It might seem that way.
The Dutch superstar at Alpecin-Fenix said he brings a new appreciation and attitude to racing following his mid-winter break to recover from a nagging back injury.
Though he ran out of gas at Paris-Roubaix, Van der Poel hit the podium at Milan-San Remo and won Dwars door Vlaanderen and Tour of Flanders. Speaking to Sporza, Van der Poel said the forced stop was just what he needed.
“I am mentally fresher,” he told Sporza. “Suffering is a bit easier again.
“You hear that riders only realize after an injury how much they enjoy cycling and that is correct,” he said. “I am enjoying cycling and training again. In recent years I lived from race to race and had few training periods. But now you notice that now and then a little rest can also turn out well.”
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The 27-year-old has been running full gas for more than a decade when he emerged as a force as a junior rider. Since then, he’s raced across multiple disciplines, winning world titles in road, mountain bike, and cyclocross in junior and elite categories.
His heavy crash at the Tokyo Olympic Games in the summer of 2021 saw him return home with a back injury. He kept racing through Paris-Roubaix last fall, and finally was forced to admit he needed some time off the bike to fully heal.
After missing the cyclocross worlds, he returned to the WorldTour with a flourish in March.
And the back?
“That will remain a working point for the rest of my career,” he told Sporza. “But I think I came out stronger.”
Mathieu van der Poel: ‘There may be some races I never win’
Van der Poel also sounds more philosophical as the seasons tick past.
He’s helped transform modern cycling into a more aggressive style of racing, with daring, long-distance attacks that have blown up the blueprint of control and domination that was the undercurrent of the peloton for decades.
Yet he admits that sometimes racing more conservatively might land better results.
“If I’m still racing in 10 years, I might kick myself for setting that [more aggressive racing] in motion with that new generation because it’s true that racing is done from very far these days,” he said. “It’s a nice way , it’s not boring.
“But it’s more and more about the honors list. I realize more and more that those ‘stupid’ actions, such as that long solo last year in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, are nice, but might cost me the victory.
“If I had ridden smart, I might have won that race,” he continued. “But my way of racing has also brought me a lot. I probably wouldn’t have won other races if I had raced smart. But the level is now so high that it is almost impossible to race stupidly. That is punished.”
Van der Poel showed signs of a new, more calculating style this spring. He raced brilliantly to foil Tadej Pogačar at Flanders, and astutely read the race at Dwars to outsmart a fierce leading pack.
Despite falling short at Roubaix, Van der Poel said there are no regrets about his performances this season, and that he is “very happy that I was able to ride such a spring” after his winter layoff.
“The years go by quickly, I’ve learned that much,” he said. “At the end of my career there will also be a few races that I have not been able to win.”
Van der Poel is taking a short break before his debut at the Giro d’Italia next month. With the Tour de France and world championships stacked up in a row later this season, he said he might skip the Dutch national road championships in late June.
“The Giro will come soon, and there is a chance to take the pink jersey,” he said. “I may skip the Dutch championship. That jersey is very nice, but that is not my main goal this year. I want to show beautiful things in the Giro and the Tour, and then I will focus on the world championships.”
A fresher, wiser Van der Poel might be even more dangerous than ever.