The cycling world is his playground — what’s next for van der Poel?
Mathieu van der Poel has electrified the road racing scene unlike anyone in years. The Dutch dynamo ripped through the northern classics, winning four one-day races in an unimaginable WorldTour debut that’s transfixed the sport.
But like a meteorite blazing across the night sky, just like that, van der Poel’s road adventure is over. At least for now.
“I didn’t even think that was possible,” van der Poel said Sunday. When asked how his magical run ends, he replied, “I have no idea. I just want to enjoy this right now.”
What’s sure is that van der Poel’s road racing season ended Sunday with an exclamation point in his dazzling victory in the Amstel Gold Race.
After a brief recovery period, cycling’s jack-of-all-trades will switch from skinny to fat tires, and race a full mountain bike World Cup schedule. The next challenge is the mountain bike world championships at the end of the summer, with the Olympic medal in mountain biking in 2020 on the horizon as the next major goal.
The burning question in the wake of his stunning spring campaign is whether or not van der Poel would take a big-money offer and dedicate himself fully to road racing?
According to one rider agent, van der Poel could name his price among the top WorldTour teams. The agent estimated van der Poel could easily pull down a deal worth $3 million to $5 million per season, immediately putting him among the best-paid riders in the peloton.
Van der Poel, however, is under contract with Corendon-Circus through 2022, and he’s been consistently saying he will honor that deal.
“Some teams have approached me,” van der Poel confirmed last week. “I still have a contract until 2023 and there is currently no interest in changing.”
There are a lot of reasons van der Poel will stay on his planned trajectory.
First off, though Corendon-Circus is second-tier Professional Continental, van der Poel’s presence means that the squad will get the invites it wants. The team is also built around van der Poel’s broad quiver of interests, and management allows him to mix cyclocross, road racing, and mountain biking as he likes. If van der Poel were to join a top WorldTour team on a big-money contract, the team would likely insist that the singular focus be on the road.
And insiders say that van der Poel is already pulling in more than $1 million annually on salary, appearance fees at cyclocross events and other sponsorship deals with suppliers, such as Canyon bikes.
Van der Poel’s run across the northern classics is certainly enough to attract the attention from the peloton’s best-funded teams. Not only did he win four races and finish fourth twice in six starts in one-days, but he’s also beaten back the biggest stars of the peloton, from Peter Sagan to Julian Alaphilippe.
The accolades continue to pour in. Ag2r La Mondiale’s Oliver Naesen summed it up best when he posted a cartoon on Twitter with a face stricken in terror, with the headline, “The moment you realize you’re racing against MvdP this weekend — God help us all.”
Even Eddy Merckx seemed awestruck, who described him on Belgian TV as an unstoppable force.
“What he did at Flanders was simply incredible,” Merckx said on Canvas. “If he doesn’t get injured in the coming years, he will still surprise people. I don’t think he’ll change his style of racing. The attack is in him. You cannot change someone’s character.”
Van der Poel has proven he has the strength to go elbow-to-elbow with the best in the peloton. Some have questioned his apparent lack of racecraft, but he’s been able to overcome a few tactical miscues through brute strength.
“The results this spring are beyond expectations,” van der Poel said. “I had hoped to be in the final in one race. But to be so close in every race is beyond what I could have dreamed.”
Another big question is why didn’t van der Poel race Paris-Roubaix? The rough stones of the Hell of the North seem perfect for his skillset. According to his father, Adrie van der Poel, Roubaix organizers offered the team an invitation to race this year. They didn’t want to overload their young protégé in his first run across the classics and decided not to race Roubaix. Van der Poel’s big goal this spring was to win Amstel Gold Race while in the road national champion’s jersey.
In hindsight, many rued that as an opportunity missed. Those inside Planet MvdP are taking the long view, with Adrie adding, “We want to leave something new for the future. Maybe Roubaix will be a good challenge for next year.”
Despite succulent offers to commit to road racing, Van der Poel has his eyes set on an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo 2020 in mountain biking. Since the Tokyo road course appears too lumpy and cyclocross is not an Olympic sport, mountain biking is a natural choice. An Olympic gold medal in his native Netherlands is a very big deal for anyone who can bring one home.
“His main goal now through next year is the Olympics, and after that, we’ll sit together and talk about the future,” said Adrie van der Poel, a former Flanders winner. “What he did [during the classics] is a lot about character. He’s a rider who only rides to win races.”
With so much success in road racing, some are questioning why even bother diverting his talent and energy on mountain biking or sticking with cyclocross? A few wonder if he might risk derailing a promising and lucrative road racing career by focusing too much on Tokyo. Olympics count for a lot, however, especially a gold medal in a country as small as the Netherlands, which has earned less than 10 gold medals per Summer Games dating back to 2004.
Van der Poel, however, says he enjoys racing on the dirt and doesn’t want to get too bogged down on the road scene just yet.
“I don’t get mental fatigue,” he said when asked about racing so intensely all year long. “If you always get good results, it’s easier to keep working for your goals.”
However, if van der Poel does want to dominate road racing, he might need a deeper team that will provide more support in the important races. Right now, van der Poel is so strong that he doesn’t need a lot of helpers. That would change as he continues to emerge as the favorite for every race.
Patrick Lefevere, general manager at Deceuninck-Quick-Step, has been watching with interest. On Sunday, he called van der Poel a “super-phenomenon,” and said van der Poel’s underdog team status isn’t a burden right now.
“I think the guys who run the team are very smart,” Lefevere said. “They signed him on a long term [contract], and helped him with everything, with cyclocross, mountain bike, Olympics, road. He’s the boss there, and they pay him well. It seems he doesn’t need many teammates.
“Now he can come in like a surprise, no one blames, and everything is fantastic,” Lefevere continued. “But if he continues to win, then they’ll start to say, ‘OK, it’s your turn to work,’ and if you are alone, it’s more difficult. In the future, if he wants to really focus on these races, he at least needs [teammates] who are able to do the final.”
Right now, road racing is his for the taking. And van der Poel is walking into the sunset. He’ll be back, most likely next spring — he might race road worlds in September — for another stampede across the northern classics.