Commentary
Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Van der Poel rewriting the rules in more ways than one

Van der Poel continues to manage multi-discipline approach in a way never seen before. But with ambitions growing by the year, can he keep it up?

Mathieu van der Poel literally picked up where he left off in his dramatic return to cyclocross over the weekend. The ending was no different, with his rivals splattered in mud as he barnstormed to victory in his favorite sandbox.

The Dutch wunderkind has been doing that all year, across all disciplines from road to cross to fat tires, cherry-picking his events, and coming home with the winner’s flowers. At this rate, he’ll have to build an extension to his house to make room for all his trophies.

The van der Poel Express shows no signs of slowing down. He’s already hinted at what will be an even more ambitious 2020 calendar, and has his sights set on cycling’s biggest prizes.

Van der Poel’s breakout season coincided in what’s already a unique time in men’s cycling. The peloton underwent a major recalibration in 2019, with a younger, brasher generation imposing its collective will on the bunch. From Remco to Egan to Tadej, the future is now.

Amid this generational makeover, Van der Poel stands above. Not only was he part of the larger wave sweeping the men’s road peloton this year, he’s been doing it across multiple disciplines, all at the same time.

That’s what makes van der Poel so unique.

Cross-pollination across disciplines is not ground-breaking in cycling. The way he is doing it is.

More than a few names across the ages who have done it well. Swapping out cyclocross and road racing is as old as when people started racing road bikes in the winter mud of Belgium. In fact, Mathieu’s father, Adrie, was pretty good at it back in his day. Most of the big Belgian and Dutch stars were always mixing in cyclocross over the winter, both for training and a chance to stuff some extra dosh into their pockets.

Mathieu Van Der Poel
Van der Poel has ‘cross in his blood, with his father, Adrie, winning the world championships in 1996. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

The advent of mountain biking brought new opportunities, and there’s been plenty of back and forth across the complementary disciplines. The likes of Michael Rasmussen, Cadel Evans and Floyd Landis all had success on fat tires before hitting the pavement.

The links between the road and track are also equally deep, and many of road racing’s best sprinters and time trialists having roots on the track. From Bradley Wiggins to Stuart O’Grady, track racing has long been a breeding ground for top roadies.

Yet almost all of those cross-over riders eventually faced a choice. At a certain point, they had to give up one discipline to excel in the other. Wiggins the track rider was never going to win the Tour de France tipping the scales at 80-plus kilos. Evans needed to learn the road skills and the art of positioning before the mountain biker could dream of winning the yellow jersey. Those transitions took years.

What’s unique about van der Poel right now is that he is concurrently shining across multiple disciplines without having to sacrifice in any of them.

No one in cycling history in men’s racing has been able to perform and produce such high-caliber results in three dramatically different niches of racing all in the same season.

The Dutchman has the racecraft, the raw power, and the youthful exuberance to parachute into any discipline, and have an immediate impact in ways the men’s side of the sport has never seen before.

Just look at what happened Sunday. After skipping out on some of the opening events, other riders such as Eli Iserbyt and Tom Pidcock were gaining quiet confidence they were ready to take on the two-time world champion. He left them all choking on his mud.

Mountain biking is the same. After leaving the road world stunned in the wake of his hugely impressive spring, he jumped out of his self-styled “Air van der Poel” 747 to parachute into the mountain bike world. He promptly won three of the four World Cups he started.

Then just as easily he segued back to the road, and nearly barnstormed away with the world title. Only a late-race bonk derailed his ambitions, perhaps reminding everyone, and most importantly himself, he’s human after all.

Van der Poel dropped out of the lead group in the finale of the road worlds after an uncharacteristic bonk. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images.

We’ve never seen anyone like van der Poel in men’s racing before. He got the genes, the means, and the beans to become a genre-bending, record-breaking rider for a new century.

But how long can he keep the party going?

At a certain point, he will have to make a choice — at least that’s what the insiders are saying. Assuming he wants to maximize his potential in road racing, the old-school logic means van der Poel will eventually have to go all-in on the road. Though he was Merckxian during his 2019 road campaign — winning 10 times in 31 days — some experts grumble that it won’t be so easy next time. He will be marked. Teams and rivals will adjust. Crashes and health problems will catch up.

But who says van der Poel has to give up on his wonderfully polyglot take on racing? He has already hinted he might just keep dabbling across all disciplines well into his career.

What’s just as unique as van der Poel’s skillset and ambitions is the structure he’s built around himself.

Old-school team bosses like Patrick Lefevere would never tolerate a rider like van der Poel skipping out of road commitments to dabble in off-road adventures while under his watch. So how does he get away with it?

Right now, van der Poel can do what he likes largely because he’s written his own ticket. He’s no longer a slave to a team boss or sponsors plying the pressure. With a stake in team ownership at Corendon-Circus, and backed by a fleet of sponsors interested in his multi-pronged approach, van der Poel is in the unique position of being his own boss.

Van der Poel has his finger in many pies, including a partnership with Canyon bikes. Photo: Ben Delaney / Roll Massif

Van der Poel might not have to change at all. With his broad skillset playing well across cyclocross, mountain biking and select road races, he could ride out his career without compromising his multi-discipline ambitions.

The only real speed bump would be if he wanted to try to become a grand tour challenger. With his current weight and build, there’s no way he could keep up with the sleek climbers in the Alps. Since he’s yet to race more than a week on the road or taken on the high-altitude grinds in the Alps and Pyrénées, that prospect is still far away. And much like Peter Sagan, probably unlikely.

Right now, a run at the mountain bike gold medal in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games is front and center. It appears, however, that the allure and challenge (and money) of road racing is becoming more tempting.

He’s already hinted that the Vuelta a España and Paris-Roubaix could be on the menu next year. With Tokyo in mind, he’s already scaling back on his ‘cross schedule, with a lighter load heading toward worlds in February. After Tokyo, how much more mountain biking will figure into his schedule? He’d like a world title at the very least.

His success this spring in the classics and a near-miss in Yorkshire for the rainbow jersey, however, will only whet his appetite of what he could achieve on the road. Next season might see van der Poel morphing more into a roadie as he looks beyond Tokyo 2020.

Of course, he might just be strong enough to keep riding everyone off his wheel without having to sacrifice his off-road passions.

It’s a brave new world, and van der Poel is in the driver’s seat in ways like no one else who’s come before him.