Last Cyclocross World Championships for Mathieu van der Poel?
Is Mathieu van der Poel considering retiring from cyclocross after the World Championships in Tabor – at least temporarily? The man who has significantly shaped this sport for nearly a decade, and whose performances in three different disciplines – cyclocross, road, and mountain biking – have led to cyclocross benefiting the most.
The statements he made during the World Cup race in Hoogerheide at the end of January could suggest this. There, phrases like “spending a winter only in Spain,” “the goal in winter is just the World Championships,” “cross in winter has to make sense for me,” were heard from him.
These thoughts are not entirely new. At the beginning of the season, he expressed similar sentiments in an interview with Wielerflits. Understandably, he has won everything there is to win in this sport, with the exception of the all-time record of seven World Championship titles.
For the survival and popularity of this sport, a complete retirement would be disastrous. Because cyclocross stands and falls with its protagonists. After Tom Pidcock and Wout van Aert only participate in cyclocross races in homeopathic doses, this discipline could once again disappear into obscurity internationally. It could then become a purely Belgian-Dutch affair as it was many years before.
Especially van der Poel and van Aert, who along with Tadej Pogacar and Remco Evenepoel are counted among the “Big Four” in road cycling and are also known outside of the cycling bubble, have so far been able to transfer this charisma to cyclocross.
Therefore, Alpecin Cycling has listed arguments for and against a possible departure of Mathieu van der Poel from cyclocross.
MVDP will retire from Cyclocross because…
New Home in Spain
Van der Poel not only trains a lot with his team in Spain, but he also owns a residence on the Costa Blanca. And the general weather conditions confirm that one can indeed train in the sun all winter long without interruption in Spain. In addition, he can train with strong riders – namely rivals like Remco Evenepoel and Tadej Pogacar – so he is essentially among equals and completely undisturbed by the Dutch and Belgian media.
No “Serious” Competition Left
If there are no surprises at the Cyclocross World Championship, it is proof that van der Poel is “running out of opponents.” Of course, he can lose a race like in Benidorm – but such instances are rather the exception. But there is no doubt, the “big” opponents have left the battlefield. Tom Pidcock and Wout van Aert, who can offer him a well-trained and focused challenge and thus force him to show his best ability, are taking their leave. As a top all-rounder, he is essentially alone in the field against the cyclocross specialists.
Who doesn’t know them? Competing goals! Jokes aside! Cyclocross, cross-country mountain biking, and road cycling. Those alone are three disciplines in which van der Poel competes with the absolute specialists. The goals are even more numerous. World championship titles, Olympic gold, classic victories, Grand Tour stage wins. Each one requires a different physical build-up, meaning training, and demands its own mental focus. In total, it ultimately costs an incredible amount of energy.
While Wout van Aert went on vacation after the 2023 road season, van der Poel trained for the first cyclocross races. While the competition on the road pedaled in the warming sun for five to six hours and engaged in conversation, van der Poel raced cyclocross in sub-zero temperatures and rain, was tense, and exhausted himself. Exaggeratedly described, he rushes from one goal to the next.
Is the back still the “Achilles heel”?
Admittedly speculative, as Mathieu van der Poel has not talked about it recently. But perhaps his back began to act up at the end of this long cyclocross season. He himself refers to it as his Achilles heel and knows that, unlike road cycling, cyclocross and mountain biking are not exactly conducive to the problems he has had.
Too High Expectation Pressure
He has already seen, or rather won, everything in cyclocross. For him, practically only the World Championship title counts. He mentioned to Wielerflits before the cyclocross season: “Actually, I race just for fun. And of course, the World Championship title is still an important goal. Actually, I see the rest of the season more as a winter activity. I can’t really win much more in terms of sports.” Conversely, this means that for him, the season without a World Championship title would be a failure – despite his twelve victories.
In addition, this focus on the one World Championship race – one hit – requires a comparatively long preparation period. On the other hand, if he trains for the classics season, he has many more opportunities. Just three to four monuments in the spring, as well as other prestigious races, where he gets a chance to win again and again.
MVDP won’t retire from Cyclocross, because…
Speculation or just thinking out loud?
When someone is asked a lot and often, new or different ideas occasionally come to mind. This phenomenon is familiar to many people in the spotlight. Who knows, maybe van der Poel was just thinking out loud or emphasizing the “cons” more in the focus of the interview. Especially in a year with the Olympic Games, it is obvious, and quite logical, that he would give such thoughts consideration. And once mentioned, these thoughts can find a receptive audience in the media.
Moreover, he was asked about his perspective at the end of a grueling training block, which tires not just the legs.
MvdP is the boss in cyclocross
He knows where he comes from, and that without cyclocross and the personal environment provided by the Roodhooft brothers, he likely would never have achieved such success and rise. Why would he risk all that and also alienate many supporters? This doesn’t mean he can’t race fewer events in a season or even skip championship competitions.
Chasing the title record
The only goal that still tempts and drives him in cyclocross is the all-time record set by Erik De Vlaeminck. The Belgian won seven world championship titles in the late sixties and early seventies of the last century. Van der Poel is not far off from this – and that could be a long-term desirable goal.
He loves cyclocross
As preparation for the road season, cyclocross training and competitions help to hone skills and sharpen senses. The automatic responses he acquires through cyclocross and the ability to anticipate and improvise cannot be trained on the road with such low risk. Not only his management and his coach know this, but he himself knows it best.
The cyclocross course is his playground. It is also associated with childhood memories. In the sandboxes, meadows, and hills, he finds his peace. In training or for fun, certainly more than in a race.
Future in Cyclocross for Mathieu van der Poel Remains Open
However, despite all the pros and cons, the protagonist also says in the interview in Hoogerheide: “I have not yet made a decision.” One can certainly be curious to see how things will proceed. Much will also depend on how the 2024 season goes on the road and at the Olympics. And that is just about to begin.