The 2020 season was supposed to be the coronation year for Mathieu van der Poel.
As cycling’s prince in waiting, the first year of the second decade of the new millennium seemed destined to ordain a modern era dominated by a new style of ruler who can rule uninterrupted on any and all types of road surfaces and tire widths.
Cycling’s jack-of-all-trades had sketched out an ambitious 2020 calendar that was supposed to peak in Japan with an Olympic gold medal, including a first-ever trot around the velodrome at Paris-Roubaix, and underpinned by personal bests every time he turned on Strava.
Of course, nothing turned out the way it was supposed to in 2020.
Van der Poel’s would-be dream season was all but a wash thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
There were no Olympic gold medals and no Roubaix cobblestone trophies for the bedside table. And even before coronavirus, there were no road worlds (van der Poel indicated the parcours did not suit him), and there was not going to be a grand tour debut due to team rankings.
Thankfully for everyone who is a fan of bike racing in its many facets, the 2020 season should be little more than a speed-bump on van der Poel’s otherwise stellar rise.
In fact, 2021 could be even better. He’s already slated a string of cyclocross races in the coming weeks. Organizers from Flanders Classics confirmed Wednesday the northern classics will be contested — without fans — on their traditional dates in April.
So far, the Olympic Games still seem to be moving forward, so the gold medal mountain bike coronation is still in the cards.
And then there’s the guarantee that his Alpecin-Fenix will be seeing automatic invitations to the entire WorldTour road calendar in 2021 after winning the European team classification, meaning van der Poel can cherry-pick the races that suit his fancy.
That all but assures van der Poel will make his highly anticipated grand tour debut in 2021, with the Tour de France — starting in late June to make room for the Tokyo Olympic Games — emerging as the most likely choice.
His possible tilt toward the Tour, instead of the Vuelta a España that he had held out hope to race this season, would make 2021 even sweeter for van der Poel and his growing legion of fans.
“As long as nothing changes, I’ll be at the start of next year’s Tour de France,” van der Poel told L’Equipe last month. “I’ll go later to race in mountain biking after that.”
And if that wasn’t enough, the 2021 road world championships set for Flanders in September could be the icing on the cake.
Of course, 2020 wasn’t a complete loss for the über-talented van der Poel.
He won a thrilling Tour of Flanders in a fitting, one-on-one throw down against longtime nemesis and rival Wout Van Aert. Van der Poel started a bit slow out of the gates in the August restart — at least by his standards — and finally hit his stride for the “fall” classics.
In his last five races of 2020, it marked a return to the familiar giant-killer we had quickly grown accustomed to in 2019. The capstone of a strange season was his stellar victory at Flanders, three top-10s, including sixth in his first crack at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and a thrilling bike-throw loss against the new world champion Julian Alaphilippe at Brabantse Pijl.
Like everyone, van der Poel had to adjust in 2020. That means he will be that much hungrier in 2021. We can’t wait.