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Mathieu van der Poel walks recovery tightrope as road worlds and Paris-Roubaix loom

The Dutchman had the world at his feet during the summer, but now he's fighting to race again due to a lingering back issue. Should he race, or cut his losses?

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Mathieu van der Poel’s season is balancing on a knife-edge.

Sunday’s one-day Antwerp Port Epic, a 183.4k ride around Antwerp and its outskirts that features some 28k of cobbles and 36k of unpaved roads, could be the test that defines the rest of 2021 for van der Poel.

The Dutchman had big plans for the end of the mountain bike and road seasons with targets on both the road world championships and his hotly anticipated Paris-Roubaix debut.

However, a lingering back problem has already forced him to eschew the mountain bike worlds and has put the road worlds in Flanders at the end of this month in doubt.

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The Antwerp Port Epic, and how van der Poel’s back holds up, will prove decisive for his immediate future.

“Mathieu van der Poel has been training stable for about a week now. He will resume racing on Sunday at the Antwerp Port Epic, after which an interim evaluation will be made with regard to his schedule for the rest of the season,” the Alpecin-Fenix team wrote on social media earlier this week.

Van der Poel’s back woes began in May at the Albstadt MTB World Cup, his first mountain bike race in two years. A recent report in Het Laatste Nieuws said the switch in riding positions between the two disciplines led to muscle strain in his back.

The issue had not gone away by the Olympic Games in Tokyo, and his dramatic lap-one crash that saw him tumble off a rock jump and land on his back only made it worse.

Van der Poel and his Alpecin-Fenix team worked hard to alleviate the pain by adjusting his cleat position and giving him a painkiller injection, Belgian media reported. However, the pain became so much that he had to cut short an altitude training camp in August.

Also read: Mathieu van der Poel still on for worlds, Roubaix despite training stop

The last few weeks have been something of a tug-of-war between van der Poel’s heart and head as he tried to fulfill his busy autumn ambitions.

The MTB worlds were the first goal to fall, a bitter blow to van der Poel who had hoped to get some sort of redemption after his Tokyo crash, and then the start of his road campaign began to crumble.

It is a positive sign that Van der Poel has been training properly again, but the true extent of his recovery won’t really be known until he can test it under racing conditions.

Should his back not be able to withstand the rough and tumble of the Antwerp, it could have some far-reaching consequences for van der Poel’s season that bleed into the start of his cyclocross campaign.

Avoiding long-term problems

Van der Poel’s recent troubles are in stark contrast to some of the dominating rides he put in the first half of the season.

It looked as though he had the world at his feet as he romped to a Tour de France stage win and spent a week in the yellow jersey in July. It was hard not to see him storming to Olympic gold, and maybe taking two rainbow jerseys before the fall was out.

Also read: Tokyo Olympics: Mathieu van der Poel’s dreams end in confusion over rock jump

Usually a semi-regular poster on social media, van der Poel has been quiet since acknowledging his crash at the Olympics, only retweeting a few brand- and team posts — including the news of his contract extension with Alpecin-Fenix.

Instead of glory, van der Poel now finds himself trying to salvage the second half of his season.

It’s clear from the way that he races that van der Poel has an insatiable thirst for it.

For fans, it is wonderful to watch but his relentless and aggressive style has bitten him in the past. It did it earlier this year after a long-range attack at Tirreno-Adriatico left him a little lacking at the subsequent Milan-San Remo.

There’s no doubt that van der Poel is keen to race again, but he must make his calendar decisions with his head and not his heart. His father Adrie, a former racer himself, has weighed in on the subject.

“This is an injury that takes time. It has gradually crept in, and you can’t expect it to be gone in two weeks. Mathieu now faces an obstacle in his career that has to be solved and it will be,” Adrie van der Poel told Het Laatste Nieuws at the end of August.

The elder van der Poel believes that pushing through the injury with full recovery could be detrimental to his son, and warned that he could find himself struggling like Thibaut Pinot if he doesn’t look after the injury properly.

Pinot has endured back issues since 2020 when he crashed during the rain-affected opening stage of the Tour de France. Later medical tests showed that the Frenchman had cracked his sacrum and pelvis. It has continued to trouble him this season and he pulled out of the Giro d’Italia before it started, and only began racing again in August.

“We don’t know exactly where it comes from. That’s the way it is. When there is success, those minor ailments are quickly forgotten, but the real cause does not go away,” he said. “Yesterday I read a story about the French cyclist Thibaut Pinot. He also struggled for a long time with his back. Pinot has been out for four months; he seems to have been relieved of the problem now.”

While van der Poel’s problems are not quite as severe as those suffered by Pinot, the Dutchman will have to plan carefully, and he could still race again this year. His father is sure he’ll make the right call.

“It makes no sense to go to worlds and Paris-Roubaix at half strength, against your better judgment. If you’re not 100 percent, then just don’t go there,” he told the newspaper. “In that case, it’s better to train a bit and ride a whole ‘cross season. He knows his own body well enough. I am convinced, if it doesn’t improve, he will stop completely and start again in a month.”