This story appeared in the November/December print issue of VeloNews Magazine.
Yet Mathieu van der Poel’s accomplishments throughout the 2019 season stand apart from these great champions. Why? This season van der Poel accomplished something so incredibly rare in our sport. At age 24 he won at the highest international level in cyclocross, mountain bike racing, and professional road cycling.
The last rider to do so was Frenchwoman Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, who won the world championships in all three disciplines in 2014. We named Ferrand-Prévot our cyclist of the year that season. Thus, it’s fitting that van der Poel earn it for his similar versatility.
His victories came in thrilling fashion, against champions who are at the very pinnacle of their discipline. And he did it for months on end.
Van der Poel opened the 2019 season by winning his sixth cyclocross World Cup of the series, before he dominated the cyclocross world championships, finishing so far ahead of his challenger, Toon Aerts, that he could ease up on the final lap.
Van der Poel then went on a tear at the Spring Classics, winning Dwars door Vlaanderen and notching fourth-place finishes at Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders in his debut at these punishing events. Victories at the Circuit la Sarthe and De Brabantse Pijl were precursors to his most dramatic and eye-popping win. During the Amstel Gold Race he somehow closed a minute gap to Julian Alaphilippe in a handful of kilometers, before sprinting for the win.
Van der Poel then hung up his road shoes and got on his mountain bike, where he continued to win. In 2018 he was often a few watts shy of Nino Schurter, the most dominant man in cross-country mountain biking’s history. Yet in 2019 van der Poel seemed to crack the code for beating the Swiss champion. He beat Schurter again and again, winning World Cups in Nové Město, Val di Sole, and then Lenzerheide.
Having decided to race the UCI road world championships, van der Poel then returned to skinny tires in August, and to no one’s surprise, he retained his legendary explosive power. Wins at the Arctic Race of Norway led into the Tour of Britain, where he utterly dominated the field, winning three stages and the overall. So mighty was his sprint on the fourth stage that his rivals told reporters that van der Poel made them feel like they were junior racers.
Van der Poel’s rainbow dream at the road world championships didn’t materialize—he made the front group and then bonked with just 13km to go. Yet it was his attack that drew out the protagonists that led to the showdown. Everyone, it seems, was waiting for the 24-year-old to play his card.
And that’s where the sport of cycling finds itself at the end of 2019—waiting to see what challenge van der Poel will tackle next. His stated goal is to win the 2020 Olympic mountain bike race in Tokyo. Beyond that, virtually any cycling race, from Paris-Roubaix to the Absa Cape Epic, seems well within his grasp.