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‘I dream of being World Champion in all three disciplines’: Mathieu van der Poel Q&A

In-depth
1 Jul 2020
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The Dutch phenomenon spoke to Cyclist over the phone from Belgium about targetting all five Monuments, multi-discipline riding and what happened at last year's Worlds

WordsJack Elton-Walters PhotographyPeter Stuart

Cyclist: Where does this call find you, and how are you spending your time?

Mathieu van der Poel: I’m currently at home in Belgium, where we have been able to ride outside most of the time, and with one other person. Compared to other countries such as Monaco, where the closest many riders can get to riding outdoors is a turbo on their balcony, Belgium hasn’t been so bad.

Cyc: Who is that ‘other person’?

MvdP: Most of the time I train with Zdeněk Štybar [Deceuninck-QuickStep] or with my brother, David, who is also my teammate on Alpecin-Fenix. David is more cyclocross-focussed, though, so recently we’ve raced a little less together, but at least now we have lots of time to train together.

We still don’t really know when the first race back will be, so most of the time it’s just base training. I don’t really do interval training any more anyway, and the weather has been really nice so it has been great for long rides – kind of back to basics and riding my bike for fun. But I hope there is some clarity in the race calendar soon. As a sportsperson you need a goal to work towards.

Cyc: Could one goal be the Tour de France? There have been rumours Alpecin-Fenix will be invited

MvdP: Yes I hope so, especially as it looks like the Tour might be one of the only big races this season. There’s only so much ‘rest’ period you can take before you really start to want to compete, so I’d welcome the chance to ride the Tour. But it’s up to the UCI of course, not us, and also the ASO [organiser of the Tour], so I hope there will be two extra teams invited, then we will be there with our team.

*The ASO has since confirmed that it will not be inviting Alpecin-Fenix to the 2020 Tour de France

Cyc: The Classics will now take place from August to October. Will the fact you usually train to peak for the winter cyclocross season put you in better shape than most?

MvdP: I don’t think so. The season is always completely different for everyone, so other riders will also have different build-ups. I just really hope that if they do run any races it is the Monuments, and if so that I can ride all five. But as I say, even though I have been able to train outside in Belgium, the lack of racing for other riders will just make them more eager to race.

Cyc: You’d been looking to swap to your mountain bike to compete in the Tokyo Olympics. Will you still target the Games if they go ahead next year?

MvdP: For sure! If everything gets back to normal next year then my season will be a copy of what I hoped it would be this season – Classics, then a mountain bike focus for the Olympics.

I hope it gets back to normal because I love mountain biking – in most situations, if the trails are good, I would always choose it over road riding or cyclocross – but where I live the trails are pretty boring, and where I would normally ride in Malmedy is far away so it counts as an ‘unnecessary journey’.

Cyc: Which type of racing do you find the most difficult of those three disciplines, and was it a conscious decision to buck the trend for specialising in one area?

MvdP: They are all very different, although I think mountain bike and cyclocross races are a little more ‘honest’: if you are the strongest rider on the day, you will probably win. Road cycling is completely different. It’s all tactics, power meters and race radios.

So it’s kind of hard to compare road and off-road racing. But the main thing is I just love riding my bike and I love challenges. I didn’t decide to do all three to stand out – it just worked out that way and I think it’s cool to do something different and to break these traditions.

Cyc: A lot of people would argue your incredible 8km chase and winning sprint at the Amstel Gold Race was pretty honest…

MvdP: Yeah of course, but you also need a little luck, not just strength, even then. If I tried that another 10 times I’d fail nine of them!

Cyc: When you consider the careers of your grandfather and father, were there ever times when you thought you might not reach the same heights as a pro?

MvdP: I was always obsessed by sport, even as a little kid, but I just wanted to achieve something – cycling wasn’t the sole focus to start with. My dad [Adri van der Poel] and grandfather never pushed me, even though my dad won the Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and my grandfather was Raymond Poulidor! I just enjoyed cycling when I was young. That’s it really.

People often say, ‘But wasn’t there this expectation – your dad, your granddad – all that pressure?’ But it has been that way since I was a kid, and because there’s that pressure growing up it makes pressure easier to deal with now. Pressure doesn’t really affect me.

Cyc: At the moment Alpecin-Fenix races with a ProContinental licence, but as a breakthrough star there must have been offers from the big WorldTour teams…

MvdP: Not really. In the beginning there was some talk with WorldTour teams but not much detail, and for me it was obvious that I wanted to stay with this team, as it’s one of the only ones who would let me race all three disciplines. I dream of being World Champion in all three disciplines, so I need a team that will let me try.

Cyc: You did come incredibly close to the road rainbow stripes last year in Yorkshire. What happened there?

MvdP: It was a few factors together. The conditions were tough, sure, but it was the same for everyone, and I don’t think I made any tactical mistakes, as the group I was in [but got dropped from kilometres from the finish] sprinted for the jersey at the end. I just think the tank was empty and after a certain point I just couldn’t hold on any more. It hurt, but you need disappointment sometimes to make you work harder in the future.

Cyc: How hard will you have to work now to get race-fit for that future?

MvdP: I think if the UCI said there’s a race in a month I could get back to race fitness by then, because my base is good enough. All I need is some specific training. I tend to find form quite quickly.

Cyc: And if you could go anywhere in the world for a training camp, where would you most like to go?

MvdP: We usually go to Benicassim.

Cyc: But where would you choose?

MvdP: Livigno.

Photographs taken at the 2019 World Championships in Yorkshire, long before coronavirus and national lockdowns