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His back is still not 100 percent and his condition is far from ideal after a stop-and-start post-Olympic Games preparation. And on top of that, forecasters are calling for what would be the first wet and muddy edition in nearly 20 years.
Despite all that — or perhaps because of it — van der Poel still rates his chances.
“I think so,” when asked if thinks he can win. “I wasn’t that far away in worlds either, so it should be possible.”
For the matter-of-fact van der Poel, that’s about as close as chest-pounding as he’s going to get.
Under normal conditions, van der Poel would be a five-star favorite to win. And even a hobbled “MvdP” will still rate highly, simply based on his pure class.
After previewing key sectors Thursday with his Alpecin-Fenix teammates, van der Poel seems ready to rumble.
“The worlds were quite decent. The shape was not 100 percent, and everyone seems annoyed with me a bit that I didn’t put in some of the attacks like I normally do,” van der Poel told journalists Thursday. “I hope to do a little bit better Sunday. We’ll see, it’s a different race as well.”
Ending an up-and-down season on a high
The 26-year-old will be ending his 2021 campaign Sunday in what’s been a season filled with tremendous highs and frustrating lows.
He won another cyclocross world title and wore the yellow jersey for a week after winning a stage at the Tour de France. His Olympic dreams, however, came crashing down in August when he misread a key jump in the first lap of the mountain bike race, incorrectly believing that there would be a ramp instead of two meters of Japanese air.
That crash and crushing Olympic exit haunted him all the way to Leuven last weekend, where nagging back pain still niggled just enough to take the winds out of his sails in what was perhaps a chance of a lifetime to win the rainbow jersey.
Eighth on Sunday for most riders would be a highlight, but for someone as prolific and self-demanding as van der Poel it was … just OK.
So what happens Sunday?
Van der Poel’s never raced on the cobbles of the “Hell of the North,” but it’s undeniable that he is one of the best bike handlers in the bunch. With his full quiver of bike skills, the pavé at Roubaix shouldn’t present an overwhelming obstacle.
In fact, he could thrive on the sharp-edged stones of northern France.
“The cobbles we rode were actually dry except for one part,” he said in a media call Thursday. “I can imagine they’re quite slippery when it starts raining. It would be cool if it rains.
“Roubaix is a race I was looking forward to for quite some time, so I am quite happy we can race it,” he said. “I think if it rains, it will be dangerous, for sure. If you can avoid crashing, it’s a lot. At a race like Roubaix, you have to be very cautious not to crash or get a puncture, and when it’s wet, that’s even more the case.”
Avoiding a crash is the first step toward victory
Van der Poel said his back is “pretty OK,” but admits he’s looking forward to a break after a long and intense season. Cyclocross remains on the calendar for 2021-22, but he said he probably won’t return to racing until the rounds in late December.
His immediate attention is on Sunday. And if the forecasts play out as many expect, staying upright will be the key element toward a possible victory.
“Even if it’s dry, it also is hard, so when it’s wet, it is even more technical,” he said. “The problem is if you’re in a big bunch, it’s difficult to avoid if they crash in front of you. It would be cool if it’s safe enough to have a wet Roubaix once, when you can stay out of trouble it’s quite OK on wet cobbles to be in front.”
“If you’re riding in a bunch, you have to deal with other riders. It will be slippery and hectic,” van der Poel said. “If you can handle your bike, it’s OK, but it’s not always you have the cards in your own hands, especially if someone crashes in front of you.”
And what about a season-ending, all-in trademark van der Poel long-distance attack?
He didn’t have the legs Sunday to try at the Flanders worlds, but that’s his calling card, so there’s a feeling if he has the winning sensations and if there’s a tailwind like forecasters suggest, van der Poel might be tossing some hay-makers.
“I think if there are a lot of tailwinds and the cobbles are wet, it can happen quite quickly,” van der Poel said of an early selection. “It’s a matter of staying out of trouble all day. If you can manage that, it’s already a first step toward fighting toward the win.”
One quickly gets the feeling that van der Poel believes that the safest and fastest place to be is alone at the front.
That’s normally where he likes to race anyway. Now let’s see if his legs and back can live up to his ambition.