How do you solve a problem like Mathieu van der Poel?
The Dutch star has been plagued by injury issues of one kind or another since the middle of 2021, and they don’t look like abating.
After a back problem laid waste to much of the second half of last year’s mountain bike and road campaigns for van der Poel, now it’s messing with his cyclocross season, too.
A knee injury picked up in a training crash — along with some COVID cancelations — already cuts chunks out of his season. However, the back problem looks like it could cause him more serious issues.
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If he was to take the advice of his father, the 26-year-old would be pulling up a seat for the remainder of the cyclocross season, and skip a defense of his world title.
“If it depends on me, he won’t be racing this winter. It makes no sense anymore. If he starts again, he will force himself again and we are no further or closer,” Adrie van der Poel told Het Nieuwsblad over the weekend.
Van der Poel almost looked back to his old self after racing to second behind long-time rival Wout van Aert in Dendermonde in his belated return to racing just after Christmas Day.
But he abandoned the Heusden-Zolder race with back pain the following day and was later diagnosed with “a swelling on an intervertebral disc” by the Alpecin-Fenix doctor.
Unfortunately for van der Poel, there’s no clear timeline on his break from racing and he may have no choice about skipping the remainder of the cyclocross season.
Ultimately, he and the team has to look at the bigger picture, and grinding himself into the ground now could see him pay the price later in the year.
“It’s frustrating, but it is what it is. The problem has been there for some time, and I’m somewhat relieved that there is an identifiable cause that can be remedied with extra rest and treatment. Everyone knows that the World Championships in the U.S. is the first big goal of 2022, but it is certainly not the only or the last one,” van der Poel said following the announcement of his mid-season hiatus.
“I want to fully recover first, without time pressure so that I can use my full possibilities. I will therefore only resume competition when I’m completely ready. If I make it to the worlds, that’s all the better. If it’s not the case, I’ll be looking forward to spring on the road,” added van der Poel.
What next for van der Poel?
Van der Poel’s back woes trace all the way back to the opening round of the MTB World Cup in Albstadt last May.
It looked like he had a handle on it but a busy summer and his somersault crash at the Olympic Games exacerbated the issue.
The back injury forced van der Poel to leave a training camp early and pull chunks out of his late-season schedule. However, he appeared to be back on it when he romped to victory at the Antwerp Port Epic in mid-September.
After missing a lot of training, he wasn’t at full force in the worlds road race a couple of weeks later but he was there or thereabouts for Paris-Roubaix in October.
Back problems can be pernicious — you only have to ask Egan Bernal —and recovery is often far from a linear experience.
Bernal’s recovery was a lengthy process and he and his team have been careful to pair back his race program to ensure he doesn’t relapse.
The next weeks, and possibly even months, could be crucial for van der Poel if he doesn’t want to be lumbered with this issue in the long term. As much as he loves getting stuck into as much racing as possible, dialing things back a lot may be the best option for him, especially as his physio believes it’s the round-the-year racing that’s hurting the Dutchman.
“This is actually the result of the many attacks he has committed on his body, from mountain biking to cycling on the road, to cyclo-cross and BMX in the past,” David Bombeke told Het Nieuwsblad. “His body is now paying the price.”
Van der Poel is not the first to suffer the strain of multi-discipline fatigue and he probably won’t be the last.
He’s still young at 26, but he’s been doing this for a long time and his ability to constantly recover at a rapid rate will only decrease.
His fellow Dutch rider Marianne Vos felt the strain back in 2015, though it was a hamstring problem that plagued her. A broken rib at a mountain bike race in April compounded the issue and she ended up bailing on the entire season to focus on recovery.
It was a bold decision for the 28-year-old and there were doubts if she could return, but it paid off and she’s still bossing things on the road and in cyclocross some six years later. Though, she has knocked her mountain bike ambitions on the head.
Pauline Ferrand-Prévot also had her own injury woes after becoming the first rider to simultaneously hold world titles in mountain bike, road, and cyclocross — a feat she pulled off from 2014 to 2015.
She was plagued by injuries throughout 2016, a spell that also took a big toll on her mental health.
More was to come with two surgeries to fix an iliac artery endofibrosis in her left leg. After the long battle with injuries, the Frenchwoman decided to pair things back completely and target only mountain bike racing.
While none of us wants to see the end of the swashbuckling racing of van der Poel across as many disciplines he can manage, this back injury could force him into some tough decisions.
Whatever he does, van der Poel should do it with his health in mind or he could find himself battling this longer than he wants to.