What does Mathieu van der Poel look like on an off-day?
His rivals found out Sunday. Admittedly far from his best, van der Poel was still good enough to fend off a late mass-assault from five Belgians to win a third European cyclocross championship title in Silvelle, Italy.
The seemingly-unstoppable Dutchman fought a lot harder for the Euro jersey than he expected, and looked visibly fatigued and relieved at the end of the race. It was too close for comfort for van der Poel, who has grown used to winning with more comfortable margins.
“It will happen one day that I am beaten,” he told HLN.be. “I can’t always keep winning everything.”
Van der Poel went wheel-to-wheel with Belgians Eli Iserbyt and Michael Vanthourenhout throughout Sunday’s European championships on a boggy course in Italy. It wasn’t until the closing laps he found the form and composure to hold off Iserbyt, Vanthourenhout, and the Belgian trio of Laurens Sweeck, Quinten Hermans, and Toon Aerts, who had bridged up from behind.
The race was just the second of the world and European champion’s 2019-20 cyclocross season, who has opted to race a lighter schedule in the mud to pace out a long season. Van der Poel’s lofty ambitions for 2020 include the ‘cross world championships in February, the spring classic road races, the Olympic mountain bike race in July, and maybe even his first grand tour at the Vuelta a España in late summer.
“I have had a fairly short preparation for the cyclocross season,” van der Poel told Wielerflits.be. “We knew that I was not going to be 100 percent, but I had expected better.”
Though van der Poel had the legs to open up a three-second gap on form-rider of the season Iserbyt in the closing half-lap, the Dutch wunderkind didn’t have the spark in his legs that he would have liked.
“I think everyone sees that last year was better than now, van der Poel told Wielerflits. “I have to follow the course and choose my moments. I was confident that it had to work, but I couldn’t drive away where I wanted to go. I did try to speed up sometimes, because I still miss that [acceleration]. ”
Although van der Poel harbors ambitions on the cobbles of Roubaix and Flanders, it’s the truly dirty stuff that remains central to his next 12 months.
“My goals for 2020 also include road classics, and the MTB event at the Olympics,” he said in a press release after the race. “Off-road racing will probably be my main focus for next year, and I may also consider the MTB World Cup.”
With those longterm goals of the ‘cross worlds and the Olympic rings of Tokyo, van der Poel has opted to race ‘cross again on Monday at a Jarmaarktcross Niel to start re-building the kick required for off-road racing. The event was always on the Dutchman’s winter schedule, but after the shock of winning in a less-dominant fashion than he may have wanted in Silvelle, there’s a sense there may be more riding on his next outings in the mud.
“When I look at myself, I don’t feel like last year. I can’t go very deep yet,” he told Wielerflits. “I need [the race in Niel] now to have those typical cyclocross efforts back in my body and legs.”
Van der Poel has three months to get the zip back in his legs for the world championships in Dubendorf, Switzerland. Though there’s a sense he was shocked at being off-form, to be able to win when racing at 90% is perhaps an even bigger victory.
“Today they [the Belgians] were close by and they will sometimes be completely there,” he said. “It was a unique opportunity for them, so it is in my profit that I had a lot of confidence.”
Though his feel of on-course lethargy may have bothered him Sunday, van der Poel knows he’s got what it takes and knows what he needs to do to retain his world championships jersey. The world has been warned.