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How Do We Even Talk About Mathieu van der Poel?

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Cautiously? Or do we let our imaginations run wild?

Mathieu van der Poel wins Brabantse Pijl
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This is a difficult column to write. I don’t know where to start. Maybe with a confession: I am a huge fan of Mathieu van der Poel, whom I first encountered in Louisville in 2013, and adopted as my favorite rider sometime around the time when he stormed on to the elite CX scene the following year, capped with an utterly premature world title. I don’t know why I decided to root for him, but it happens a lot with young Dutch riders. I can’t really explain it.

Van der Poel in Louisville
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On that day, van der Poel won his second world junior cyclocross title. By that summer, he added the Dutch and World road titles. I think basically at that point it became clear he was going to be someone special. And so he has. But what?

Yesterday van der Poel won De Brabantse Pijl, his second major cobbled classic victory of the last two weeks following his success at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Today, he’s a top favorite to win the Amstel Gold Race. What he does from there, I’m not sure he’s even thought about. There’s no denying, however, that his road career, which wasn’t even supposed to get in gear until after his assault on the 2020 Olympic mountain bike race, is off to a spectacular start.

What Do We Think of His Palmares?

Here’s a quick rundown of van der Poel’s road accomplishments:

  • In 2017 he won a stage of the Tour fo Belgium off no less an opponent than Philippe Gilbert. He also won the Ronde van het Hageland and Boucle de la Moyenne.
  • In 2018, his road season expanded because he hurt his wrist and wasn’t allowed to go mountain biking. Really, every part of this story is ridiculous. So instead he showed off some world-class sprinting ability, beating Nacer Bouhanni in the Tour of Limburg and Ramon Sinkeldam and Danny van Poppel in the Dutch Nats road race, before losing only to Matteo Trentin in the European Championships. He added a couple stages of the Arctic Tour of Norway on his way out the door.
  • This year, he’s attacked the classics, taking GP Denain (after crashing hard out of Nokere Koerse), then fourth in Gent-Wevelgem (his first WT race), first in Dwars, fourth in de Ronde, and first in Brabantse Pijl. He picked up a sprint win in the Circuit de la Sarthe as well.

We knew he was strong, but his two fourth-place finishes, GW and Flanders, showed he’s crazy-strong. Those were supposed to be too long for a rider of his experience, or so we thought. But he’s 24 now, and such judgments about who is ready for what can be a bit narrowly focused on road results. The fact is, he’s pretty much always competing at something involving bikes, and I suspect his MTB efforts are at least as useful for training as his CX exploits.

We knew he could sprint. That alone is enough to switch this conversation away from Wout Van Aert, who is also slated to have a brilliant road career based on what we know so far, but he will need to win alone most days if he’s to win at all. I‘m not sure either rider fits this description, but Wout vs Mathieu on the road is a bit like Boonen vs Cancellara. If they come to the line together, we know who wins.

Road Cycling - European Championships Glasgow 2018: Day Eleven
Trentin pips van der Poel in the Euros
Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

What’s interesting is his dominant performance in Brabantse Pijl, where he outfoxed Michael Matthews in the sprint — yeah, OK — but only after hauling back Julian Alaphilippe on the climbs — um, holy shit. Ala has been the single best rider on the planet, all things considered, this year, and is poised to crush the Ardennes races, but he couldn’t get rid of the Flying Dutchman (can we get him a new nickname, stat?) over the Brabant hills.

Amstel on Saturday will tell us more. The hills get higher as the week goes on, and at some point one would expect van der Poel to drop off the pace. But until it happens, it feels like anything is still possible. The fact that he has won so regularly makes it feel less flukey than a guy who comes and goes from the podium. Expectations can be nonsense, but given his relentless record of sudden and meaningful success, what else are we supposed to think??

Who Does He Resemble?

This is a bit of a crapshoot, since I’m not really the person to make such comparisons, but I am going with Roger De Vlaeminck. Another possibility I considered was Hennie Kuiper, but that may be a bridge too far, with Kuiper bagging a couple wins on Alpe d’Huez that are seemingly out of van der Poel’s reach. I say “seemingly.”

Comparing van der Poel to De Vlaeminck will elicit a few snickers, after the Gypsy got under the skin of several van der Poels this past CX season by saying Mathieu was putting the fans to sleep with his dominant wins. But that’s a minor coincidence; classics cycling is a small world, and De Vlaeminck likes to stomp around in it as noisily as he can. If De Vlaeminck hasn’t talked shit about you at some point, you might not be trying hard enough.

De Vlaeminck with Merckx in northern France
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But on the bike, they are identical in height and racing weight, long-legged and broad-shouldered, and in their dirt backgrounds. De Vlaeminck rode ‘Cross (and won races) just about every year throughout his road career, and if mountain bikes had been invented then, he probably would have tried his hand there too. His CX exploits are credited as part of why he was so dominant at Paris-Roubaix. More on that in a moment.

But what’s most striking about De Vlaeminck’s career, a record he is less likely to share in the future as his 4 P-R wins (now matched by Boonen), is his being one of three riders to win all five monuments. I don’t know if that was as remarkable then as it would be now, given the emphasis on climbing in recent editions of both Liege and Lombardia, and I have thought about a longer post on how Philippe Gilbert is now one MSR away from breaking through there.

But for van der Poel, that would probably be his ceiling as a road cyclist, matching the Gypsy in the Monuments. With Liege moving away from a climbers’ finish, that would clearly be within his reach. His size and handling skills make him a natural for Paris-Roubaix, although I don’t see any indication that he’s ever raced there, at any level. Until he loses, he’s a potential winner? Maybe, but in this case, until he does it, it’s an unknown. Still, both his dad and his grandfather (Pou-Pou) had four top-tens, so when the time comes (next year) to take on the Hell of the North, I’d expect Mathieu to sort it out quickly. Can you imagine having “Paris-Roubaix success” in both of your family bloodlines? This should work.

Anyway, back to the De Vlaeminck comparison, the Gypsy won over tremendously varied terrain, from the medio-montagne Giro stages to the Scheldeprijs. These exploits are a bit more telling than his monuments success, insofar as they don’t default to the strongest rider but really do emphasize the singular skills of climbing or sprinting, and De Vlaeminck was apparently pretty good at both. He won 22 Giro stages (but only one Tour stage) and four points classifications, doing battle with the Gimondis and Mosers on their home soil in what must have been some fantastic stages. He also was an instant success, winning his first major race (the Omloop Het Volk) at age 21. Van der Poel has been held back a bit but his success this year is pretty much on par with its instantaneous greatness.

Van der Poel pounding the cobbles in his first Ronde van Vlaanderen
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It’s not hard to picture van der Poel using his power to hang in on some grand tour stages, which as I said may emphasize a particular skill but also aren’t always contested by the guys with the best skillset. Serve up a mid-mountain stage which the GC favorites are leery of contesting, and watch him crush it from a breakaway. That will probably happen in Italy and France before too long. Italy for sure. France... we will see. The competition is so high every day in the Tour. There van der Poel can look forward to stages like the typical Saint-Etienne affair but anything more mountainous will likely draw out a few true climbers. At some point his size will have some limitations, is my guess.

Any Other Predictions?

Apart from having already more or less tipped my hand on Paris-Roubaix success, van der Poel seems like a sure bet for a Flanders win as well as an MSR title. To be that strong and that fast at the end, well, that’s what you need. He was nearly the best of the rest in Flanders on his first try, after scorpioning at, what, the 60k mark?, when his front wheel taco’d on him. His battle back into position is probably about what would have been required to attack from the front, so with some better luck, he’s on Ronde-winning form already.

MSR is famously elusive until it isn’t. Lately the race has been decided by reduced fields, and if he can get into one of those, you can notch another win. Eventually. Maybe. History is full of guys who seemed sure to win there, but never did. Still, his resourcefulness (a question mark at times in his CX career, before this year anyway) plus his speed should get it done.

Liege is another one you can see him winning as long as the finish is not uphill. This year Sagan was tipped as an early favorite (though not anymore) thanks to the removal of the Ans end point. Definitely a race for the strongest, and already we saw that Matthews and a few other non-climber types could win there. Tbd.

Lombardia... right now that would be the least likely monument for van der Poel. Not much to say other than we don’t know if he can handle the climbs with the best climbers, and we don’t know what they’ll do to the course from one year to the next. Right now I’d say he’s doubtful to win there, but I’ll wait for more information.

Lastly, a world title is another mortal lock. He’s won them on the road as a junior and repeatedly on his cross bike at every level. He was third at the world on his MTB too. I’m sure he loves the rainbow stripes, who doesn’t? And his skill mix will work for him more often than not. The Dutch squad will have a few heavy hitters in it, and that could just as easily spell trouble as success, but with his sprint he should be able to seal the deal.

But... But...

Bear in mind, this is a column about a guy in his third tepid approach to road cycling at the top level. Nothing is assured, the competition only gets stiffer, and we don’t even know necessarily what he wants to do. His contract with Corendon goes another year, so at best he will be relying on (and receiving) wild card entries in the big races. When he changes teams and commits to road racing full time in 2021, well, who knows what will be going on.

It’s clear he and Van Aert will cross swords again and again in Flanders, as their genial rivalry could dominate the headlines like Boonen-Cancellara did for the last decade-ish. Van Aert is ticketed for his own form of greatness, and hopefully won’t always be overshadowed by van der Poel as he was this spring. I personally am grateful for this, and for the other mix of young stars gathering on the cobbles, because the next decade is shaping up to be a truly competitive era. Unless van der Poel just crushes it. Not saying that will happen, but right now it feels like anything is possible.

So pump the brakes. Pretty soon he will have a few dozen of the world’s greatest riders on his wheel all the time. His Corendon team, which have been tactically sound, will be outgunned by the Quick Steppers and others. Goals will change — has van der Poel himself even set those goals? It seems like it’s all in his hands, but van der Poel himself needs to define his career, and he can and will do that when he feels like it, which isn’t necessarily right now. Then others will have some say over how much he wins.

But it’s hard for a van der Poel fan not to get completely over the top excited.