Many are calling him the greatest cyclist of all time and the most talented bike racer on the planet, and at 24 years old, Mathieu van der Poel is proving to be just that.
Dominating across all three disciplines of cyclocross, mountain bike and road, this “little phenom” as his grandfather, cycling legend Raymond Poulidor, proudly calls him, is simply out of this world extraordinary.
Mathieu van der Poel or MVDP, has had the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on his mind for quite some time. In fact, the 2016 Rio games were part of his plans, but he suffered a knee injury aer a crash at the 2015 Tour de l’Avenir which required surgery later that year and delayed the start of his cyclocross season. In an interview with CyclingTips.com, Mathieu stated: “The Olympic Games is the highest goal.”
And with the highest goal in mind, the Belgian-born boy of Dutch descent has chosen to focus on mountain bike as his Olympic discipline – as cyclocross is not an Olympic sport and competing in both the mountain bike and road event will be “far too difficult”. He told
Cycling Today, “I’ve already proven on the mountain bike that I can compete in a World Cup race. Whether it’s the same as the Games is hard to say.”
Cyclocross was what kick-started Mathieu’s bike career, and road racing is obviously close to his heart, with his father, Adrie Van der Poel, and grandfather, Raymond Poulidor, both cycling legends in their own right.
“My father would prefer me to focus on the road … but I’m behind my own decisions. If I go to Tokyo, I’ll be 25 when I start focusing on road racing, a normal age at which you can make a career for another 10 years,” Mathieu told Cycling Today. In an interview with Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, he said, “Some say my father pushes a big stamp on my career. That is not entirely true. If it was up to him, I would not be focused on the mountain bike now.
However, he feels it is important that I do what I like to do. You choose the discipline you prefer. On the mountain bike, I have experienced so much fun that this is the most obvious choice for me.” Nino Schurter, eight time Mountain Bike World Cup Champion, says, “He’s an awesome rider, no doubt. I’m sure he’s going to be one of the favourites and hard to beat.”
The decision to focus on mountain bike for the Olympics has by no means interfered with Mathieu’s cyclocross or road racing careers. He’s like a chameleon, happily swopping bikes,
suits, terrain and skillset to win across all three. And properly. He first proved this point in 2017, when he was just 22. It was the opening round of the UCI XCO World Cup, in Nove Mesto na Morave. Mathieu started in 90th position and had ridden his mountain bike not more than a dozen times. He finished eighth that day. Then he went on to the UCI 2.HC Baloise Belgium Tour where he won stage two in a sprint against Philippe Gilbert. Mathieu
didn’t complete the road stage race, as he returned to the XCO World Cup in Albstadt. This time he started in the front row and stayed hot on the heels of the then unbeaten Nino Schurter, coming in 26 seconds behind him, even after a mid-race crash.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
We could argue that genes certainly play a part. But an unstoppable determination to want to win also plays a key role. Mathieu’s older brother David told French newspaper, Liberation, “Mathieu always wanted to win, everywhere, all the time. Whether it’s PlayStation or Monopoly, he cannot finish second!” Both brothers excelled at cyclocross – David won 25 of 30 races in his second season as a Junior, won the 2009-10 Junior Cyclocross World Cup Series and came sixth in the 2016 World Champs. Mathieu’s breakthrough Junior season in 2012-13 saw everyone sit up and take notice when he raced in 30 events, and won them all. “Mathieu had all the skills, everything was a big playground for him. He was more daring, he was more graceful and he could always climb faster than me,” said David. But that wasn’t enough. It was at that time that Mathieu entered the Junior 2013 Road World Champs, and after winning that too, he turned pro, before he even finished high school. In 2015, at age
20, Mathieu was the youngest Elite men’s World Cyclocross Champ ever.
Sven Nys, one of the top cyclocross racers of his generation, says of Mathieu, “He has something very special, like a young Peter Sagan.
They don’t make them every year.”
ON THE ROAD
This year alone, Mathieu has raced 31 days on the road. His victories include the Amstel Gold Race, stage one at the Arctic Race of Norway, three stages at the Tour of Britain, including the overall win, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Brabantse Pijl and Grand Prix de Denain. In an interview after his stage seven win in Tour of Britain, Mathieu said, “It was a
pretty hard day actually, in the first 70-80km there were a lot of attacks and I think my team handled it perfectly and did an amazing job. The second to last time we went up the climb I knew it was up to me to be at the front and follow the group of favourites, and then I was all alone in the big group so I had to gamble a little bit coming into the last ascent to the finish line.” His first Road World Champs race as an Elite, in September, did not work out quite
how he envisioned, when he bombed dramatically in the last lap. In a postrace interview with CyclingWeekly.com he said, “It was extremely cold at some moments. It’s a World Championship I will remember for a long time.” He later posted on Instagram: “No regrets.
I raced the way I love to race, was in the right group that sprinted for the gold medal and gave it my all, until the lights went out. Go big or go home.” Now that Mathieu’s Corendon-Circus team have recently moved to being the second-highest ranked Pro-Continental team, this means he will more than likely be on the start line for any of the WorldTour one-day Classics he picks next year.
It’s safe to say that Mathieu van der Poel will be dominating the front line of all three disciplines for many years to come, and we’ll be happily watching.
Perhaps he’ll shift his focus 100% to road racing. What we would love to see is something his grandfather came so close to many times, but never grasped… wearing the coveted yellow
jersey and winning the Tour de France.
Words by Liza West