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Mathieu van der Poel may have missed a medal but there was still reason to be cheerful for the Dutchman.
Van der Poel finished over a minute behind double world champion Julian Alaphilippe in eighth place, after spending a lot of his race chasing rather than being the aggressor he usually is.
However, he will be delighted that there was no sign of the back problem he’s been battling for the best part of three months.
“That was okay. It didn’t hinder me. It was more a matter of condition, where I wasn’t 100 percent,” van der Poel said of his back after the race.
Van der Poel strained his back in a crash at the Albstadt MTB World Cup in June and aggravated it further when he crashed again in dramatic fashion at the Olympic Games, landing on his back after misjudging a rock jump on the first lap.
Having come into the second part of the 2021 season with big plans to go for gold at the Olympics, mountain bike world championships, road world championships, and make his Paris-Roubaix debut, the injury blew a hole in his ambitions.
Van der Poel tried adjusting his cleat position to help with the pain, but it proved too much, and he had to leave a training camp early due to it. The cards soon began to tumble with the MTB worlds being scratched from his calendar and his road return at the Benelux Tour also falling by the wayside.
The tide began to turn for the Dutchman, though, and he finally got some racing action under his belt for the first time in a month as he rode to an impressive victory at the Antwerp Port Epic earlier this month. Though he knew he could still outkick many of his competitors, the time away recovering from his injury meant he didn’t have the legs to keep up with the stinging attacks.
“I was hoping we would sprint for a medal. I felt like a could do a sprint, but I just don’t have the condition to do two or three stupid attacks like I can normally do,” he said.
Mathieu van der Poel: “I didn’t get into my rhythm in the first part, I was always too far. I had expected they would attack from far but they started from 180k. They rode insanely fast. The condition has killed me today, not my back. I’m satisfied seen my limited preparation.”
— Cyclocross24.com (@cyclocross24) September 26, 2021
While the result may not have been what he wanted, Van der Poel is hopeful the ride will give him the base he needs to race Paris-Roubaix next Sunday. It will be his first appearance at the monument, and he’ll once again be among the favorites.
“I hope that this gives me a little bit extra condition for next week. I look forward to it. It’s something new, it should suit me. I hope that a took a step today, after perhaps a calmer week I can ride a race like today, but with something extra in the final.”
The brutal cobbles on the road to Roubaix will be the toughest test yet for van der Poel and his back, but he’s confident that it will hold out and the slabs of pavé won’t cause him any issues.
Giving it up for Dylan van Baarle
We’ve got used to some big swashbuckling moves or “stupid attacks” from van der Poel during his career, but he was uncharacteristically quiet in Flanders. As well as being unable to dictate the attacks, he also struggled to follow some of them.
The other Dutch riders rallied around him, with Bauke Mollema proving a very valuable rider to have at his side, keeping him as close to the front as he could.
“Especially in the first half of the race, I suffered a lot. I really didn’t feel good. I was getting caught up in the second half of the peloton on the laps in Leuven, that was very uneasy, and I could just move up,” van der Poel said.
“Bauke closed a gap, but a wasn’t too optimistic about the last Flandrien lap. I was the very last to join the group of seventeen. From then on, I felt a bit more at ease and there were fewer big accelerations. I didn’t feel bad, but it’s not like I had a lot left in the tank.”
The story behind this podium is as much about who isn´t there 🇫🇷🇳🇱🇩🇰🧐
— UCI (@UCI_cycling) September 26, 2021
Though van der Poel did not get the medal he had been searching for, the race was not a complete bust for the Dutch. Dylan van Baarle matched nearly all the moves in the final, only missing Alaphilippe’s final dig.
At the finish, he outsprinted Michael Valgren, Jasper Stuyven, and Neilson Powless to take the silver medal, his first-ever trip to the podium at worlds. The Dutch team was all-in for van der Poel at the start of the day but, sensing the way the wind was blowing, the pre-race favorite freed van Baarle from any team duties to give him a chance to go for his own result.
“I get along very well with Dylan. With 30k to go, he came and asked if he should close gaps for me. I said I would rather have him go with small groups, as that was more beneficial for us. He did it perfectly and gets a nice reward with silver,” van der Poel said.
“That’s why I didn’t ask him to work for me. I know he won Dwars door Vlaanderen. I knew he could do it, and he did it perfectly.”