Mathieu van der Poel, the other half of cyclocross’s ultra-dynamic duo, will join his rival Wout Van Aert at the spring classics this year, as his Corendon-Circus team have been granted a Pro-Conti license and the Ronde van Vlaanderen quickly let them know they will be welcomed at Cyclings Mooiste in April.
The 23-year-old Dutch star is currently dominating the CX season and was said to be idling his road ambitions until after the 2020 Olympic Games, where he expects to compete for a medal in mountain biking. But no harm in getting an early start on what some (ahem!) see as a potentially noteworthy Classics career, given his impressive displays of power and consistency on the cross bike. [Some others, who follow his mountain biking exploits, might have more to add here.] Van der Poel has done little to quell the projections when he has taken up his road bike, coming in second at the European Championships, winning two stages of the Arctic Race of Norway, plus the Ronde van Limburg and the Dutch national time trial championships, and flashing a Boonen-like power-sprint when given the chance.
His Corendon-Circus team are moving up the food chain with this announcement, no doubt powered by van der Poel’s strength and star status, as they will make their debut in several races (with van der Poel) including Dwars door Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem, Brabantse Pijl, and finally the Amstel Gold Race. [Paris-Roubaix is off the list, as van der Poel made it clear he didn’t want to take things quite that far on his first campaign.] The team is registered in Belgium, giving it a leg up on the Flanders Classics wildcard draw, and van derPoel’s legitimate chances for a result (someday) make it a clear choice.
Less clear is the participation of his friendly rival Van Aert, who remains locked in a contract dispute where he either rejoins the Verandas Willems-Crelan team (who would then be a lock for another wild card entry), or move to another squad for 2019. In the latter case, Verandas Willems will insist that his contract requires him to pay 500k Euros to escape it, which means presumably the team signing him would have to make good, or help with the cost at least. It’s long been rumored that LottoNL-Jumbo are his preferred landing spot, but until it happens, it hasn’t happened.
Something has to give, however. Van Aert’s debut in the classics in 2018 was beyond sensational, taking ninth in Flanders and hanging around well into the final stages, to cap off a run that included 10th in Gent-Wevelgem (in the final sprint) and third in the Strade Bianche. The real story here is that the guard is changing, and a younger generation is ready to take up its place among the seasoned veterans and the still-young-and-maybe-awesome gang of Tiesj Benoot, Mads Pedersen, Michael Valgren, Jasper Stuyven, and others.
What van der Poel’s chances look like are a total, tantalizing mystery. Van Aert was 23 when he extended his rainbow-winning CX form into the spring classics this year, proving immediately that he had the grinder grit of a seasoned veteran, to say nothing of his raw talent. It’s tempting to compare the two on the road, and they have faced off on some tarmac events, with van der Poel’s sprint giving him an edge, but Van Aert has proven himself at the longer, harder races whereas van der Poel will be making his first impression.
It’s also worth noting that Pedersen is younger than both of the ‘Cross stars, taking the start at Flanders (one hopes) this spring at age 23. No discussion of a “new wave” of young stars on the cobbles should proceed without him, even if he lacks the early international exposure that Van Aert and van der Poel, owners of four rainbow jerseys, gained on the dirt. Pedersen has been grooming himself for these races since he won the Juniors Paris-Roubaix in 2013, and after attacking over the Koppenberg and holding off all but Niki Terpstra at de Ronde eight months ago, he comes in as the favorite for an early-career win. His second place made Pedersen the youngest podium finisher at the race in 40 years. [And since you were about to ask, Tom Boonen was 21 when he came in third at the 2002 Paris-Roubaix.]