Think of the surname Van der Poel and you likely think of Mathieu’s many famous exploits – World Championships wins in two disciplines, Monument victories, stints in jerseys yellow, pink, national, and continental. A good career; indisputably so.
Or maybe you think of Adrie van der Poel, Mathieu’s father. A world championship in cyclocross, six classics, two stages of the Tour de France. Another good career.
Spare a thought, then, for David van der Poel – Mathieu’s older brother, early mentor, and longtime Alpecin-Deceuninck teammate. Over a thirteen-year career as a professional, with time split between CX, XC and road, the elder Van der Poel has seen the rise of his brother as a generational talent and the decline of his own status as a force within the Van der Poel dynasty.
Yesterday, after thousands of kilometres and years of sweat, Van der Poel quietly closed the racing chapter of his life. And yet, still a good career, even if it has often been in the shadows of father and brother.
Van der Poel rose to prominence as Dutch junior national champion in cyclocross, before picking up a string of wins in second-string CX races in Czechia and Switzerland and representing his country at the elite World Championships in 2016. There was a run of wins in 2017, a string of podium finishes in 2018-19, a lesser batch of results in the years after that. Meanwhile, Mathieu’s star was on the rise: a tally that sits at five World Cyclocross Championships, a World Road Championships, and endorsement deals that see him charismatically peering off billboards and TV screens for the likes of Zwift and Canyon.
On the road, they have raced alongside each other on 87 race days; Mathieu has finished ahead of David on all but seven occasions. Since mid-2018, David has beaten Mathieu just once, and that was due to a DNF.
If there’s any resentment from David, he’s never shown it. Speaking after Mathieu’s latest CX Worlds win, David was effusive in his support. “I’m not jealous, but very proud,” he said. “I know what Mathieu has to do to reach his level and I know the hard training he has to go through. I couldn’t!”
In the competitive world of elite sport, it would be reasonable to expect that there was some competition between brothers, but David dismissed this possibility, too. “Mathieu just sees me as a brother. Very simple actually. We don’t normally participate in the same competitions,” he explained. “When we see each other, we naturally also talk about other things than the race. Mentally you have to avoid being fixated on the races all the time.” A relief from the chaos of the sport; some family time in the eye of the cyclone.
David van der Poel’s decision to retire wasn’t entirely a willing one. In February, he was confident of continuing his time with Alpecin-Deceuninck, talking the talk of being more than just ‘the other Van der Poel’. “I know my strengths and weaknesses very well. I know what the team expects of me and I’m convinced that they will keep me in the team because I’m worth it and not because I’m Mathieu’s brother,” he said at the time.
Alpecin-Deceuninck evidently disagreed. His contract was up for renewal at the end of 2023, and there was no offer forthcoming. “We sat down together to see how the team saw it, how I saw it. A month or two ago, we decided it was better to put an end to it,” Van der Poel told Wielerflits yesterday.
That last month or two has seen a string of race days across Belgium, a stint in Turkey, and an unheralded last hurrah yesterday at the Sluitingsprijs Putte-Kapellen back in Belgium. The fact that it was to be his final race wasn’t even announced until after the race’s completion; no fanfare, no emotion-filled exit. “That’s not who I am or what I want. I would prefer not to have too much fanfare surrounding my farewell. The people around me already knew it, of course, but otherwise I tried to think about it as little as possible. I wanted to continue training as I have always done and continue to give everything in the races,” Van der Poel said afterwards.
Perhaps David can take some comfort in the career arc of peers like Juraj Sagan, another older brother to a far more illustrious World Champion who quietly stepped out of the sport and appears to be leading a happy life in the aftermath. Or perhaps there’s something rawer in David’s transition to life after the bike. He is a man of few words, often in the shadows of a brighter light.
Fittingly, then, there was a kind of cruel poetry to his final race – a sprint finish, fiercely fought, with Van der Poel gamely battling for position and a final lunge for the finish line. The result? Second.
“It’s not a victory, but it’s a nice way to end. I am also at peace with the fact that I have to stop now,” Van der Poel said after the finish. “The realisation will probably only come in a few days or weeks, because I have thought so little about it. I don’t know at all what I’m going to do now. I would prefer to rest for a while first and then see what comes my way.”
The world is uncertain, and transitions out of professional sport don’t always go easily. For now, maybe it’s enough to just acknowledge that there is life after cycling, and that what David van der Poel contributed held value. There was a life in the sport, and now something new will begin.
David van der Poel will always be Mathieu van der Poel’s big brother. But he is more than that, too.
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