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Don’t call it a comeback just yet.
Mathieu van der Poel returned to winning ways after weeks of injury woes at the Antwerp Port Epic on Sunday. The Dutch supremo outsprinted breakaway companion Taco van der Hoorn after a typically swaggering day in the saddle and brightened his hopes of racing the approaching world championships and Paris-Roubaix.
“If I had to estimate my chances (for worlds and Roubaix) now, I’m already thinking about something more than the 50/50 that I indicated this morning,” van der Poel joked after the race.
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The Antwerp one-dayer was van der Poel’s first road race since dropping out of the Tour de France after an against-all-odds six days in the yellow jersey, and seven weeks after the dramatic crash at the Olympics that saw his MTB gold-medal hopes hit the dirt and left his back in bits.
Persistent problems with his injured back had caused van der Poel to pull the plug on the mountain bike world championships and Benelux Tour in the weeks after the Games, and Sunday’s Antwerp Port Epic was to be used as a tentative test of his recovery.
Van der Poel did what van der Poel does, attacking with van der Hoorn 25 kilometers from the line before blasting to the win. If Antwerp was a test, the 26-year-old earned an A grade.
Van der Poel isn’t booking himself in for the worlds just yet, and acknowledged that the potentially seven-plus hour road race would be an altogether different beast from Sunday’s 180km race.
Further medical assessments this week will dictate the shape of the rest of his season.
“I did everything I could to test the back today and certainly didn’t play hide and seek. I purposely wanted to make it a long finale to feel how I reacted,” van der Poel told Dutch media. “It was an instructive day, but the final decision for the rest of the year should be next week.”
If van der Poel gets the green-light to race in Leuven in two weeks’ time, he hopes to fine-tune his form after his long layoff at the Primus Classic this weekend and the GP Denain next Tuesday.
“I want to be able to train well for another two weeks to get a decent form at the worlds. If I’m only at 70 percent, I won’t participate,” he said.
“I’ve been told that I can’t break anything in the long run. That is also the reason why I am so eager to try to make it to Paris-Roubaix and the world championships. And after that, I want to take a longer rest to let the back heal completely. Because I have to get rid of it someday.”
A rainbow jersey and cobblestone trophy would at least give van der Poel something to admire if he’s ordered to spend a few weeks on the couch this fall.