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Alpecin-Fenix engages road mode as Mathieu van der Poel’s grand tour debut beckons

After years of focus on cyclocross, the Belgian squad's new signings and rider preferences mark a quiet transition toward the tarmac.

Mathieu van der Poel‘s Alpecin-Fenix team came out top of the ProTeam rankings in 2020, and with it, has earned itself a slot at the three grand tours. With three-week racing on the near horizon, the formerly ‘cross-focused squad is quietly steering out of the mud and onto the tarmac.

The Belgian outfit has long been a fixture on the cyclocross scene since the signature and meteoric rise of triple cyclocross champ van der Poel in 2014. However, in 2021, the signatures of top road sprinter Jasper Philipsen from UAE-Team Emirates and Swiss veteran Silvan Dillier from Ag2r-La Mondiale signposts a wider pivot away from the grit of Belgian winter and toward the sun of mid-summer grand tour racing.

Having earned the right to race at all WorldTour events by beating Arkéa-Samsic to the top of the ProTeam rankings this season, van der Poel’s long-awaited grand tour debut beckons.

Brittany is likely to be the start point of the Dutchman’s grand tour career as he places the Tour de France and Olympic Games on a pedestal in 2021. According to Belgian rider Tim Merlier, Alpecin Fenix’s grand tour ambitions may not end there, with suggestions that a run at the Vuelta a España is also a possibility.

“I will probably do my first grand tour [next year],” Merlier told Sporza this weekend. “The Tour or the Vuelta.”

With the possibility of two grand tours on the not-so-far horizon, the squad is redoubling its focus and finances on the road.

Merlier spoke ahead of a week-long team training camp in southeastern Spain, a block that drags Alpecin-Fenix’s riders away from the ‘cross season and further signals the squad’s wider shift in focus.

“From December third to 11th, I will go on a camp with the team to Benicassim,” said the 2019 Belgian road champion. “Then I start the campaign in cyclocross. In the meantime, I have mainly become a road cyclist. I’m not going to the cyclocross season with a lot of ‘cross training, because the team training period in Benicassim is preparation for the road season. ”

The recent signings of Dillier, Philipsen and the similarly road-focused trio of Lionel Taniaux, Xandro Meurisse and Edward Planckaert come parallel with a ‘cross season devoid of the frites and fanfare that often mark the winter racing block.

With much of CX season taking place “behind closed doors” as Belgium and the Netherlands looks to combat a second surge of COVID-19, the absence of rowdy fans and a raucous party atmosphere has taken some of the appeal out of racing through the Belgian winter and redoubled a focus on the tarmac.

“I’d [typically] rather participate myself than watch it,” Merlier said when asked about his cyclocross ambitions. “Now that no public is allowed, I don’t like it at all. I will be happy when I start ‘cross again, but still, the next road season is more important.”

Similarly, Mathieu’s brother, David, has shifted priorities to the road. For him, the opportunity to be competitive in ‘cross has taken a hit as his younger sibling and archrival Wout van Aert have come to dominate whenever they turn their eye toward CX. With less prospect of scoring a result has come a drift in disciplines.

“In recent years I prefer to race on the road,” David van der Poel said earlier this month. “In ‘cross it is difficult to deliver really good performances. The level has gone up and it is difficult for myself to join.”

Alpecin-Fenix is far from turning away from cyclocross altogether. Already this season, Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado has emerged as the woman to beat, taking the European championships and three further victories. Meanwhile, Loris Rouilleur has scooped a victory for the men since the season started last month.

Mathieu van der Poel is set to kick-start his ‘cross campaign at the X2O Trofee round in Antwerp in mid-December. But there’s a sense that his team and their staffers may have their minds elsewhere.