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Tom Pidcock sets tone on rivalry with Mathieu van der Poel in Olympic mountain bike blitz

Pidcock’s Olympic gold medal adds fuel to a fierce fight across three disciplines with van der Poel.

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The highly anticipated mountain bike match-up between Tom Pidcock and Mathieu van der Poel wasn’t to be Monday. But what the world missed out on in the Tokyo Olympic MTB race will be more than made up for in years to come.

Van der Poel crashed out of contention before the race was through with the first lap Monday, leaving Pidcock one less rival to blast off his wheel in his blitz through the technical Izu track Monday.

With van der Poel out of the way, the 21-year-old Pidcock attacked a pack of MTB veterans off his wheel and held his nerve to win at a canter. It was a performance that will set the tone for years of multi-disciple rivalry between the young Brit and his Dutch counterpart.

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“It was pretty crazy that I could become an Olympian,” Pidcock said after taking gold. “I was just trying to tell myself before the race that it’s just special that I’m already here.”

All-eyes were on Pidcock ahead of the race. The 21-year-old had blazed through a three-discipline season, batting away the world’s best road, cyclocross and mountain bikers with prestigious victories in the mud, tarmac, and trail.

But one face had always been in Pidcock’s way – van der Poel.

The Dutchman had proven the one nut that Pidock wasn’t able to crack all year, and van der Poel was a top contender for mountain bike gold Monday. The Brit’s broken collarbone this June left him down on training time and uncharacteristically doubtful ahead of the hugely hyped MvdP match-up.

“It was really hard. I haven’t done a good race since,” Pidock said on his comeback from injury. “I’ve trained really hard and I knew I was in good shape but there’s always doubt.”

Van der Poel’s Olympic dreams beaten by a boulder

Mathieu van der Poel crashes early in mountain bike event
Mathieu van der Poel crashed early in the mountain bike event. Photo: Jasper Jacobs/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images

Pidcock’s injury setback saw him go all-in to prepare to face van der Poel at the Games, training in a heat tent and arriving in Toyko early last week to acclimatize and adjust.

Meanwhile, van der Poel chose to jet into Japan only Friday in the bid to minimize tight curfews and COVID protocols. His spectacular backflip early in the race Monday came from what could have been a similarly gung-ho approach to the race.

Van der Poel misjudged a steep drop from a huge boulder, later citing a wooden ramp that was used in practice but removed before the race as the cause of a miscue that lost him the race. However, Dutch coach Gerben de Knegt said van der Poel had been made aware that the ramp had been removed after a series of practice sessions.

“In training, there was a bridge to prevent falls. That is normal, just like it is normal for them to remove it before the race,” de Knegt said Monday. “We’ve discussed this a dozen times at the table, so Mathieu knew that.”

Whether van der Poel’s Olympic-ending crash came from a lack of caution or an uncharacteristic loss of control, the Dutchman is likely to come back swinging after a season of classics victories and Tour de France yellow jerseys came unstuck on the biggest stage.

“I’m happy this sh*t’s only every four years because it’s f**king stressful,” Pidcock said after the race.

Van der Poel will likely agree with the sentiment.

He will be seething after watching from the sidelines as Pidcock took gold in a show of strength and skill that came straight from the Dutchman’s playbook. Van der Poel’s tragedy and Pidcock’s triumph Monday will be a thread that weaves its way through what looks set to become a long and rich rivalry.

Pidcock punches to the top of British hopes and into van der Poel’s path

Pidcock and van der Poel will go head to head across three disciplines for years to come. Photo: British Cycling

Pidcock followed in the wheel tracks of Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, and many more by becoming a British Olympic champion Monday.

“It’s nothing like any other race. The Olympics just transcends any sport,” Pidcock said after crossing the line with the Union Jack over his shoulders.

“You compete and represent your country and everyone in your country is behind you, no matter in what sports they like. It’s just national pride, it’s unbelievable.”

Pidcock’s stellar show on the Izu mountain bike course comes well-timed for British cyclists after a summer of disappointment.

Geraint Thomas and Tao Geoghegan Hart’s Tour de France never got started, and Simon Yates’ hopes of late-race stage wins came undone in a gravel-riddled crash. Adam Yates clocked into the top-10 in the road race Sunday, but it was scant consolation for a summer where British cycling was aiming for yellow jerseys and gold medals.

Pidcock only turns 22 in a few day’s time and has the world at his feet.

After coming home ‘disappointed’ with fourth at his first-ever elite CX world championships, he blitzed through his rookie WorldTour season in a series of battles with van der Poel and Wout van Aert, winning De Brabantse Pijl and hitting the top-6 another four times. A debut grand tour awaits in less than three weeks at the Vuelta a España.

Just like van der Poel and his unlikely spell in the Tour’s yellow jersey earlier this month, Pidcock is still discovering what he can do.

And you can bet that whatever he does, van der Poel will be there trying it too.