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How Mathieu van der Poel came back from season-ending injuries to win the Tour of Flanders

We speak to van der Poel's physio and dive into his training data to understand the Dutchman's fast-track from back problems to De Ronde.

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Mathieu van der Poel’s Tour of Flanders triumph was forged on the sofa, the physio’s studio, and a boot camp in Spain.

Van der Poel completed an against-the-odds comeback to win his second Ronde van Vlaanderen on Sunday, just two weeks after returning to racing from a five-month layoff with injury.

“I worked so hard for this one,” van der Poel said Sunday. “At first I wasn’t even sure I’d make it to the classics. To win De Ronde, it’s incredible.”

The Dutchman resisted everything Tadej Pogačar could throw at him and didn’t let off until the finish line in a ride that will live long in the memory and top MvdP’s own collection of power files.

Van der Poel’s epic effort on the roads of Flanders – a leg-breaking six and a half hours at some 340w – is the product of a journey a lot of amateur athletes can learn from.

So how did he come to clutch his second Flanders trophy? By accepting when to rest, doing the boring bits, and training smarter not just harder.

Also read:

“I think it’s maybe been one of my best preparations,” van der Poel said before he won Dwars door Vlaanderen last week. “I could prepare myself the way I wanted to and not start racing immediately after the cyclo-cross season. The preparation has been a bit shorter than if I’d had the choice but I think that it’s been really good.”

Time do dive into the data and speak to the experts to discover just what van der Poel did to defeat injury and win De Ronde.

No riding for six weeks of ‘hell’

Van der Poel’s long-nagging back injury was the story of the off-season.

He suffered all summer as a long-simmering overuse injury peaked at the Tour de France and tweaked further after his cartwheeling crash at the Olympics.

A whirlwind return from a period of rest saw van der Poel hit the Paris-Roubaix podium in October before the classics king hit the couch in the quest to recover.

But some six weeks of rest wasn’t enough to save van der Poel’s cyclocross season. His anticipated world title defense lasted one race before the Dutchman pulled the plug proper in the new year.

Strict instruction from van der Poel’s physio David Bombeke mandated a no-ride regime.

“It’s hell for a guy like him to do nothing for six weeks, but he really needed it to let the back calm down,” Bombeke told VeloNews.

“In recent years, he never took a rest and was always going from one position to the other, on the cyclocross bike to road and mountain bike. He never took time to work on his core stability, and the problem – an overuse thing – built up.”

Turns out that van der Poel’s non-stop schedule of racing 12 months a year finally unravelled. After rarely resting longer than a few weeks, van der Poel begrudgingly backed off.

“The only treatment was to have time off. We had to let him relax his back completely and strengthen it again from scratch,” Bombeke said. “Only then could he gradually return.”

A six-week bootcamp brings classics-crushing form

Van der Poel was the only rider that could match Pogačar’s repeat punches. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Van der Poel’s return to the saddle early February makes for a tale of baby steps turned giant leaps.

A dig into the Strava stats show a seismic increase in volume and intensity through a six-week bootcamp of riding and rehab.

For the first two weeks, van der Poel did what his director called “riding, not training.” Even you or I might have kept pace as van der Poel soft-tapped through local two-hour rides at a somewhat sedate 220w (2.9 w/kg).

Also read: MvdP ‘riding but not training’ in low-key return to the bike 

But from there, all roads rapidly led to De Ronde.

The weekly volume leaped from around 17 hours to 28 hours, and the frequency and intensity of the interval sessions exploded in a carefully executed training plan where less was initially best.

By the end of February – less than four weeks after getting back in the saddle – the Dutchman was completing three consecutive days of high-intensity intervals, all within four- to six-hour rides through Spain’s Costa Blanca.

By March 12, van der Poel was “back.”

A 15-minute power test saw him average 470w (6.3w/kg) in what was a staggeringly speedy return to form. It was all a premonition of a racing return that saw him hit the podium at Milan-San Remo and win a stage of Coppi e Bartali before conquering Dwars door Vlaanderen and De Ronde.

Power Analysis: Mathieu van der Poel at Coppi e Bartali 

By the time van der Poel was slugging it out with Pogačar in Flanders – matching his moves on the Kwaremont and bending but not breaking on the Paterberg – he was every inch the van der Poel of old.

Off-bike work bulletproofed the body

Van der Poel spent two hours a day fixing the faults in his-long battered back. (Photo: ANP Sport via Getty Images)

But the story isn’t all about what was going on in the saddle.

Van der Poel may not have even made it back onto the bike without a rigorous rehab program designed by Bombeke, who acted as personal physio for Cadel Evans in his build toward the 2011 Tour title and has worked with teams BMC, CCC, and Lotto.

During the weeks off the bike, van der Poel spent up to two hours ironing out kinks in his core and kick-starting under-firing muscles.

“The major thing during the years he had problems was that he was not using his glutes enough, so he was working too much from his lower back muscles,” Bombeke said in a recent call.

“We taught him again how to work from his glutes and hips and work less from his back muscles. So we strengthened his glutes, also the front part of his body like his hip flexors and deep abdominal muscles.”

When van der Poel returned to riding, Bombeke’s boot camp didn’t stop. Van der Poel topped up five- to six-hour rides with extra time in the gym.

“I learned that I have to focus a lot on stability and fitness exercises, it was maybe a bit in the background in the last years because I had to switch disciplines and I didn’t have the time,” van der Poel said last week. “I even ride one hour less on the bike just to do my exercises now.”

The takeaways? Sometimes, less is more … and work on your core

Van der Poel’s whirlwind turnaround both points to modern trends in pro cycling and highlights a few things for us “average joes.”

“Van der Poel’s preparation for the 2022 season – or lack of – speaks to the trend of under-racing and preference for training,” USAC-certified coach and VeloNews training columnist Zach Nehr told this reporter. “For many riders, training rather than racing is the path to peak form.”

Tried-and-trusted pathways toward grand tours are slowly being resigned to history. Riders like Primož Roglič are making it a mainstay to pedal at altitude through the summer rather than slogging through a series of tune-up races ahead of the Tour de France.

“The biggest difference between racing and training stress is the amount of specificity and structured rest periods. This includes not only the rest between interval sessions, but also the timing of rest days, travel days, and the extra duties that go along with racing,” Nehr said.

“When a rider is training, they can go to sleep whenever they want, ride whenever they want, and have access to their own kitchens, gyms, roads, and physiotherapists. There is so much more room for recovery in training.”

Being able to keep a lid on things is something every weekend warrior can learn from.

Most amateur athletes are prone to training more rather than training smart, and most coaches advocate for more rest than most riders care to commit to.

Likewise, it turns out the S&C that every amateur reads about but regularly neglects actually works.

Training tips: Strength concepts for cycling

“Mathieu never took enough time to work on his core stability, his preventative exercises,” Bombeke said.

“For him, having the time and almost being made to do that off-bike work was essential, or he may not have even made it to Milan-San Remo. It’s the same for recreational riders. I advise to all bike riders to invest time in conditioning and working on their weaknesses.”

So, take it from “MvdP” – Work on your core and get comfy on the couch when your body needs it. It may not make you win a cobbled classic, but it might make you a better rider.

Van der Poel Strava file from 2022 Flanders
Big numbers lead to big results: MvdP’s ride at De Ronde

This is the second part of Jim Cotton’s new “Behind the Ride” column.

Check out part one here: Inside the old-school training that took Sepp Kuss to the top of the Tour de France

Zach Nehr contributed to this report. Check out his VeloNews Power Analysis series