Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Van der Poel burst into the early season races like a rocket, with hot out-of-the-gate victories at Strade Bianche and emphatic stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico. There have been hints that his form is tapering, underscored by a flat race Wednesday at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
There have been some murmurs that he’s running out of gas coming into Sunday’s clash at De Ronde.
There’s no looking forward or backward for van der Poel as he lines up Sunday as defending champion at one of cycling’s most important races.
“I have no regrets,” van der Poel said Friday. “I am very happy with my victory in Strade Bianche, and it’s one that I really wanted to win.”
Van der Poel has been burning the fuse since last fall, when he won Flanders to finish off a busy second half of the COVID-revised 2020 calendar. He dove straight into the cyclocross season and added another rainbow jersey to his collection over the winter before diving back onto the road.
Van der Poel has been racing like a man possessed all spring as if he was making up for lost time. After his UAE Tour was scuttled in February, van der Poel was quickly adding race days across Europe. Many thought it was to chase form.
Instead, the way van der Poel is telling it, he was running on fumes.
“I didn’t have the best base when I started the season, but we already knew that,” van der Poel said in a media call Friday. “It was enough to stretch to Paris-Roubaix because I immediately had a good form. However, the Italian races were quite hard and difficult. If you have to go deep a few times while your base is not great, everyone knows that you will lose something in your fitness.”
With only a few short breaks squeezed in between, van der Poel admits he might not be as fresh as he had hoped for ahead of Sunday’s big match.
Yet as any top pro realizes, when you have the legs, you don’t wait. Van der Poel pushed the accelerator in Italy, marked by his gut-wrenching solo stage victory at Tirreno-Adriatico and epic coup at Strade Bianche.
And now he admits he might be running out of gas ahead of the start Sunday in Antwerp.
“I do not regret doing that and I also find it difficult to say whether it cost me any strength,” van der Poel said in a video call. “In the last Belgian races, I have not yet recovered the legs from before the block with Italian races. I hope I can play a significant role in the final [Sunday]. If that is not the case, we have to start thinking about how we should approach this in the future.”
All eyes will be on van der Poel, long-time rival Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step). Cycling’s “three tenors” could take centerstage again like they did in last fall’s race, but other contenders are trying to fight their way into the spotlight.
“I think a lot of riders can win; the latest races have shown who were the strongest,” he said. “We could always designate the favorites in advance, but after each race, we saw it turned out to be different. I always find it difficult to put predictions on results. Also for Sunday, I think there are more favorites than everyone [else] thinks.”
So who handled their winter better? Van der Poel or van Aert?
“Everyone does it in their own way,” he said. “Sunday will show what works and what was the best.”
Of course, even a slightly overcooked van der Poel is still better than a whole bunch of everyone else. Perhaps it’s a bit of pre-race mind games. Van der Poel is racing to win Sunday, and he also said that emphatically.
No more road racing until Tour de Suisse and Tour de France
And unlike some of his rivals, van der Poel is not adding races to his calendar after the rescheduling of Paris-Roubaix for October.
After Flanders on Sunday, he’ll take some time off before pivoting to mountain biking, then back to pavement for Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France, before returning to the dirt for a run at the Olympic gold medal in mountain biking in Tokyo.
“Despite the fact that I’ve only raced 15 days, it already feels like a long — and especially intense — season,” van der Poel said. “It was good, but I’m already looking forward to mountain biking after the Tour of Flanders. I will take two weeks off after Sunday to prepare myself well for the mountain bike World Cups in Albstadt and Nove Mesto.
“They are very important to me. I have to collect points there that I really need for the Olympics,” he said. “I want to finish as high as possible in those races for a better starting position in Tokyo. After the mountain bike block, I will go on a training camp and after that, I will ride the Tour of Switzerland, the Dutch championship on the road, and the Tour de France.”
No rest for the weary, even if you’re Mathieu van der Poel.