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Mathieu van der Poel is taking his ‘cross bike out of storage and getting ready to re-enter the mud this weekend.
The triple world champion will be starting his cyclocross season at the X²O trophy round in Antwerp on Saturday in what will make for a warmup ahead of a series of highly-anticipated clashes with archrival Wout van Aert.
Van der Poel returns from an Alpecin-Fenix training camp in Spain this week, and his team is expecting the unexpected as its star rider races ‘cross for the first time since February.
“Expectations are not very high, because the road season lasted a long time,” team manager Philip Roodhooft told Sporza. “[But] of course, we know that Mathieu will compete for the podium from the first race. It is possible, the victory. Never say never. He will certainly not be ridden away from.”
Van der Poel will land himself in the midst of a season that has so far been dominated by clashes between Belgian foursome Van Aert, Eli Iserbyt, Michael Vanthourenhout, and Toon Aerts. Iserbyt has emerged as the leader of the pack so far this year, finishing on the podium in all but one of his 13 races to date, but the diminutive 23-year-old expects that to change this weekend.
“Mathieu could win immediately,” Iserbyt said. “He starts his season a little later and that will be for a reason. If he races, we can no longer play it tactically with our team, because he reacts to everything.”
Though Iserbyt may stand as van der Poel’s main rival at the X²O race this weekend, it’s the Dutchman’s opening battle with his longtime foe van Aert that will scoop the haul of the headlines. Each rider’s schedule keeps shifting, though Het Nieuwsblad reports their first head-to-head could come as soon as next weekend, at the World Cup round in Namur.
Van der Poel was reluctant to accept comparison between himself and Van Aert when speaking to Belgian press Tuesday. However, the rangy Dutchman more-than welcomed their fierce rivalry, a battle that has rumbled through years of clashes in ‘cross, and more recently, the classics.
“Wout and I owe each other a lot,” van der Poel said. “We make each other better and more popular, we realize that. ”