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V is for victory! Mathieu van der Poel profile

Mathieu van der Poel is the sport’s new superstar, but can he really live up to the expectations placed on him? Photo: Peter Stuart

Richard Moore
19 Jan 2021

At the end of 2019 Matt White, head sports director at Mitchelton-Scott, was invited to indulge in a game of fantasy cycling. If he could sign any rider in the world, he was asked, who would he pick?

White didn’t hesitate. ‘Mathieu van der Poel,’ he said.

This was quite something from a man running a team whose ambitions are focussed on winning Grand Tours – which they did with Simon Yates at the 2018 Vuelta a España – to the extent that they were willing to lose two Australians, Michael Matthews and Caleb Ewan, whose talents were deemed incompatible with the pursuit of pink, yellow and red jerseys.

For Van der Poel, who is seen as capable of winning everything except a Grand Tour, White would sacrifice everything. Presumably, to paraphrase the strapline of a famous cosmetics brand, because the Dutchman is worth it.

This is all hypothetical, of course, since Van der Poel is very much not available. The 26-year-old’s team, formerly known as Corendon-Circus but re-branded as Alpecin-Fenix for 2020, has developed in tandem with him and is built around him – and the brothers who run it would love nothing more than to look after the rider they call ‘gold in our hands’ for the duration of his career.

In this sense, Van der Poel’s setup is a throwback to the days when teams had all-powerful leaders – the likes of Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault – to whom every other rider was subservient. 

Racing in the genes

Van der Poel also has a powerful link to the past. His father is Adri van der Poel, a cyclocross and road star of the 1980s and 90s, and his grandfather was one of the greatest figures of world cycling, Raymond Poulidor, who died in November 2019 aged 83.

Poulidor, known as the ‘Eternal Second’, was runner-up in the Tour de France three times and third on five occasions. He never wore the yellow jersey and, although he did win major races, including the Vuelta, he was best known for not winning. For this he was dearly loved – a national treasure in France whose name transcended cycling and even sport.

The physical similarity between the younger Van der Poel and his grandfather is uncanny. It’s in the cheekbones and eyes, and in the stocky, muscular build, although Van der Poel is taller.

The main difference is that the grandson does not have his grandfather’s propensity for not winning. In personality, too, they diverge. Poulidor was affable and easy-going but while Van der Poel appears to have more fun on a bike than most, he is also driven, with a ruthlessness more reminiscent of the riders who were thorns in Poulidor’s side, Anquetil and Merckx.

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But where Van der Poel truly stands apart, from every other rider, is in his range. Road racing is only part of what he does and who he is. You are just as likely to find him on a mountain bike, cyclocross bike, gravel bike – even the BMX he keeps at home.

He was twice Junior Cyclocross World Champion and has since won three senior titles, including the 2020 race in Switzerland, where he simply rode away from the field from the start to win by more than a minute.

He is also one of the best mountain bikers in the world and a contender for the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, if the games go ahead and he choses to compete. And as he demonstrated during the 2019 season, he is one of the best, and arguably the most exciting, road racers in the world.

In 2017 Van der Poel raced just 17 times on the road, but tasted victory five times. In 2018 he rode even fewer races – 13 – but won six. The 2019 season was the first in which he made the road a serious focus, targeting the Spring Classics. He raced 31 times – still a modest tally – and won 11 times.

That pretty remarkable hit rate included Dwars Door Vlaanderen, Brabantse Pijl, the Tour of Britain and, most spectacularly of all, the Amstel Gold Race. But it was one of the races he didn’t win, the Tour of Flanders [which he did win in 2020], that arguably best showcased his talent, while another, the World Championships in Yorkshire, proved that he is human after all.

The question going into Flanders was how Van der Poel would cope with the distance of 270km. The answer: fine.

With 60km remaining, he crashed while attempting to bunnyhop a piece of road furniture. When he landed heavily, the front wheel broke and he was propelled over the handlebars.

He slowly picked himself up and got back on his bike. He chased for almost 30km, sometimes on his own, sometimes in small groups. Getting back to the front group looked impossible, but he did it. Then he attacked on the Kruisberg, one of the cobbled climbs that pepper the finale, and was able to follow the favourites on the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg before sprinting to fourth.

Five months later, at the World Championships, in torrential rain and freezing cold, Van der Poel bridged up to the leaders with an ease that suggested the rainbow jersey was his for the taking.

But then on the final lap he abruptly cracked, losing 12 minutes in a few kilometres and appearing at the finish in a distressed, almost hypothermic state. It shattered one myth: that if Van der Poel got himself into a winning position he was unbeatable.

Or even if he didn’t get himself into a winning position. At the 2019 Amstel Gold Race he won despite Julian Alaphilippe and Jakob Fuglsang being away and getting ready for a two-up sprint for the line. They hadn’t factored in Van der Poel, who hunted them down in the last 10km – despite riders sitting on his wheel – before thundering through the final kilometre to win.

Illustration: Tim McDonagh

View from the sidelines

‘What he did in the 2019 Amstel Gold Race was stupid,’ says Hans Vandeweghe, Belgium’s top sportswriter, ‘but still he won.’

The veteran journalist has followed the young Dutch cyclist closely, admitting to a fascination that borders on obsession, but for one simple reason: ‘I think he’s the best athlete who ever rode on two wheels.’

He qualifies that, a little: ‘He might not be the cyclist who wins the most races – that’s different – but what he can do on a bike, I’ve never seen anything like it before.

‘I’ve also never seen anything like his tests. Amazing figures. I’m not saying he’s going to win the Tour de France – he’s a little too heavy at 74kg. If he goes to 70 or below it would be unhealthy for him. But all the other races he can win.

‘I love writing about him,’ Vandeweghe adds. ‘He’s not Michael Jordan. I used to interview Jordan and his every word was interesting. That’s not the case with Mathieu. He’s introverted. It’s the only similarity between him and his father. They keep their distance; they’re very wary of the press.

‘I went to his team’s training camp in Benicàssim before Christmas, sitting with his manager in the car, watching the way he is with his teammates, the way he talks, the way he plays – he’s like a footballer on a bike. It’s a game for him.’

In Benicàssim, Vandeweghe asked Van der Poel how he had spent his post-season holiday. ‘I did some sports,’ Van der Poel replied. ‘What sports?’ asked Vandeweghe. ‘I rode my bikes,’ said Van der Poel.

He is also an avid gamer. ‘He often spends 10 or 12 hours just sitting on his computer playing games,’ says Vandeweghe.

Perhaps it’s because it comes easier to him than it does to most, but it looks as though Van der Poel has a lot of fun on his bike. ‘Yes, but not in road races,’ says Vandeweghe. ‘The first 200km he finds very dull so he’s always looking for friends to talk to.

‘One of his friends is Stijn Vandenbergh. They talk about cars. But the problem is that very early in races Stijn [who rides for French team AG2R] is called up to the front to work.

‘In mountain biking, in cyclocross, he races from the start, so he finds this part of road racing a problem.’

For the moment, Van der Poel shows no signs of turning his attention full time to the road. At the time of writing [this article first appeared in issue 98, April 2020 of Cyclist] he is in the midst of yet another hugely successful cyclocross season, having just won the world title for the third time.

While his team had invitations to most of the Spring Classics, his biggest goal for 2020 is the cross-country mountain bike race at the Tokyo Olympics [which, of course, was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic].

The guardians

Philip and Christoph Roodhooft are the men behind Van der Poel, having looked after him since he was 15 years old. Christoph, himself a former professional, runs the sporting side of the Alpecin-Fenix team, while Philip takes care of the business side.

‘We are a team of three,’ Philip has said, ‘where Mathieu is the big engine and we create the framework.’

Christoph is closest to Van der Poel the athlete. ‘We have the same relationship we have always had but obviously he has gone from teenager to adult so some things have changed,’ he explains. ‘Mathieu himself hasn’t changed.’

For one thing, he is still an avid gamer. ‘He spends less time playing Fortnite than he used to,’ says Christoph. ‘But still a lot.’

His manager confirms Vandeweghe’s point that every race wants Van der Poel, and says this creates problems: ‘We try to protect him. When planning, we start with his own ambitions and what’s important for him and the team, not what the organisers want – or in a couple of years we will end up with only a body without a head.’

Van der Poel is under contract with the Roodhooft brothers’ team until the end of 2023, when he will be days away from his 29th birthday.

Christoph and Philip say they would like to continue beyond then. They see Tom Boonen and QuickStep as the blueprint: save for two seasons with US Postal at the start of his career, Boonen was a one-team man as he won 42 Classics, including four Paris-Roubaix wins.