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World champion Mathieu van der Poel during CX World Cup Benidorm.

Could Worlds be Van der Poel’s last ride for cyclocross rainbows?

A win in Tabor this weekend would be a handy career bookend to his first elite title, in 2015, also in the Czech Republic.

Joe Lindsey
by Joe Lindsey 30.01.2024 Photography by
Kristof Ramon
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For a month now, Mathieu van der Poel has made winning cyclocross races look almost effortless. But it’s pretty clear that it’s taking a toll.

In the wake of his latest win at the Hoogerheide World Cup, Van der Poel suggested the coming weekend’s World Championships in Tabor might be the last time we see him hopping barriers for a while.

Asked what might follow a possible sixth rainbow jersey, Van der Poel answered carefully. “I’ll have to take a look at that. I became World Champion the first time in Tabor and maybe again next week,” he said, suggesting he might bookend his elite career with titles in the same place. “That would be nice, but I haven’t made a decision yet [on racing]. If I like doing it, I’ll keep doing it, but above all it must be meaningful.”

What is meaningful to a rider like Van der Poel? Earlier this year, he suggested perhaps equalling Eric De Vlaeminck’s record of seven world titles might do it. But for a rider with five already, a possible sixth in days, and wins in essentially every other race and series of note, there is not much else left to accomplish in the discipline. Even this year, he’s racing solely for that sixth title. “Those other races are no longer goals,” he said. Blunt, but not wrong.

At 29 years old, Van der Poel is conscious that his window for achieving other objectives is slowly closing. Even a man as fast as he cannot bend time, nor is he a perpetual motion machine. He’s questioned whether the returns of cyclocross now are worth the cost. “It has crossed my mind this year,” he continued. “It’s going to happen at some point that I won’t do it anymore.”

This year, there’s been a fair bit of speculation about whether Van der Poel’s cross season might cost him on the road this spring, with some pointing to Van Aert’s strong 2022-23 ‘cross campaign and then frustrating spring as evidence. I’m still not sure I buy that; Van Aert had a string of disappointing-for-him-and-fans results, but his worst finish in five races across March and April, including three Monuments, was fourth. The winner of two of those big events? Van der Poel, who had a nearly equal number of race days and wins last cyclocross season. And it was, recall, only a few years ago that Van der Poel and Van Aert’s winter regimen was held up as a reason why they were racing so strongly on the road in spring, and which led to a short-lived boomlet of road pros trying ‘cross.

But Van der Poel himself admitted that the toll of the winter season is part of why he has reservations about racing more in the future, although some of that seems to be more related to his obligations as a giant of the sport than the racing itself. “You should not underestimate such a day of ‘cross, the audience and everything that comes with it,” he said. “That hour of ‘cross itself may cost the least energy.”

Mathieu van der Poel poses with a young fan at a cyclocross race. The young boy is smiling and giving a thumbs up for his father who is taking a cell phone photo.
For Van der Poel, the duties that come with his stature seem to require as much or more energy as the racing.

Van der Poel also suggested that mountain bike racing was no longer a primary focus either, partly because the training demands of the sport are so different than what he needs for his major objectives, the Spring Classics. For that, he suggested, quiet winter training in Spain, of the sort he did before starting his winter ‘cross campaign, is more what he needs.

If he did tailor his multi-discipline calendar to focus on the road, he’d be in good company; recent past World Cyclocross Champions – Lars Boom, Zdenek Stybar, and of course, Van der Poel’s great rival, Wout van Aert – largely left the sport behind to chase road glory, to varying degrees of success.

While Van der Poel has outstripped Van Aert for major wins in both disciplines, he certainly seems to have more meaningful road goals than cyclocross, and that those still very much involve the Spring Classics. First, of course, he wants to win that sixth rainbow jersey, and while he’s the prohibitive favorite, nothing is assured.

This is Mathieu van der Poel, after all, and disaster is never far away, most often seen in the form of inexplicable crashes in major races: last year’s World Road and Mountain Bike Championships, or the Tokyo Olympics. Or even last week’s Benidorm World Cup round.

Past that, Van der Poel’s form appears to have faded slightly over a month of racing. In December, he was attacking on lap two and going clear to win nearly a minute ahead of second place. But in his last few races, by choice or necessity he’s been more patient, and at Hoogerheide seemed to lack that supercharged gear from even a week ago at Benidorm.

We don’t know whether, if Van der Poel is somehow beaten this weekend, that would reignite his desire to race ‘cross. He said only that he might one day return to the sport to chase more world titles, and that “If I don’t win the World Championships, I can’t call it a successful winter.”

What’s the more fearsome prospect for Van der Poel’s road rivals come spring? An MvdP who’s checked off his list and focused on turning the page? Or a discontented one looking to make up for losing out on one of his big objectives? In a matter of days, and then weeks, we’ll find out.

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