Mathieu van der Poel dives into a corner while off the front in the 2024 World Road Championship in Glasgow, Scotland.

Van der Poel to skip Olympic XC, will target road race

The August 3 event could give us the Van der Poel vs. Van Aert matchup we were denied last spring.

Joe Lindsey
by Joe Lindsey 16.05.2024 Photography by
Kristof Ramon and Gruber Images
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Cue Michael Scott.

Mathieu van der Poel’s announcement this week that he will forego the Olympic mountain bike XC to focus instead on the road race makes the August 3 event a possibly titanic showdown between Van der Poel and his longtime rival Wout van Aert.

The choice “made for a difficult puzzle to put together,” Van der Poel said in a press release from his Alpecin-Deceuninck team announcing his plans. “Just the road race? Only mountain biking? Or both?” In the end, Van der Poel said, “I chose the most logical thing,” and that was to concentrate on the road race.

That’s likely because the course is ideally suited to his abilities. The 273 km route starts at the Trocadero Plaza near the Eiffel Tower before a long set of loops into Yvelines and the department’s Chevreuse Valley. When the race returns to Paris it takes in two loops of an 18.4 km urban circuit including a 1.6 km cobbled climb (6.5% average) of the Butte Montmarte, past the iconic Basilique du Sacre-Coeur before the finish at the Trocadero. 

The route of the men's road race at the 2024 Paris Olympics. After a start in downtown Paris at the Trocadero, the race leaves Paris for a meandering set of loops through the Chevreuse Valley to the southwest before returning for an urban circuit over the Butte Montmarte.

The combination of length, 2,800 meters of elevation gain over a series of short climbs, and technical descents on the urban parcours make for a Classics-style race that is ideally suited to Van der Poel, who won last year’s World Road Championships on a similar urban-flavored course.

Standing in his way will be a deep field, although with just 90 total starters, team strength will play a smaller role than at Worlds. Likely contenders include Tom Pidcock, Mads Pedersen, and Remco Evenepoel. But chief among Van der Poel’s challengers will be Evenepoel’s compatriot Van Aert, for whom the course is also ideal.

Few rivalries have captivated cycling fans in recent decades like the ongoing clashes between the Dutchman, Van der Poel, and his Belgian nemesis Van Aert. Dating back to their days as junior cyclocross racers, the two have traded wins in many high-profile events, but Van der Poel has had the clear upper hand in recent years. 

Certainly don’t sleep on Pedersen’s chances; the Dane has repeatedly shown he’s among the very best in the world on long, difficult courses. But Van Aert will be Van der Poel’s most-looked-to challenger. While Pidcock’s attention will be split by defending his gold medal in the mountain bike event and Evenepoel is targeting a Tour de France overall bid, Van Aert’s main goal for the rest of the season, like Van der Poel, appears to be the Olympic road race. 

Wout van Aert leads Mads Pedersen and Mathieu van der Poel up a climb in the rain at the 2023 World Road Championships in Glasgow, Scotland.
It’ll be zero surprise to see these three characters at the front of the Olympic road race in August.

Van Aert was on excellent form in spring but hasn’t raced since a massive crash at Dwars door Vlaanderen in late March left him with serious injuries and denied fans a chance to see a highly anticipated Van Aert-Van der Poel duel at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. The crash also ruined Van Aert’s plan to ride the Giro d’Italia. 

This week, Van Aert’s Visma-Lease a Bike manager Richard Plugge told GCN that Van Aert might not even race the Tour de France, depending on what his star rider believes is the best prep for Paris. “We physically believe he can be there (at the Tour), but again, we have to wait. We still haven’t sat down with him to talk about his calendar.”

Van der Poel, who cruised to victory in both Flanders and Roubaix in the absence of Van Aert, seems pretty clear about his plan: “I prefer not to miss the Tour de France,” he said, noting that as World Champion he wants to race in the jersey as much as possible. “And (the Tour) proved to be a good preparation (for Worlds) last year.”

Van der Poel has no races on his schedule prior to the Tour, he said. After an altitude camp, he plans to start in Florence and help teammate Jasper Philipsen hunt sprint finishes while also hunting for a couple himself. “The goal is to win a stage myself this year,” he said.

Going back to write a happier off-road Olympic ending than his 2021 disaster in the Tokyo mountain bike event? That will have to wait for an older Van der Poel who has maybe ticked off a few more bucket-list goals like a gold medal on the road. “Who knows what’s still possible in 2028 in Los Angeles,” he said. “That’s still a long time away, but I’ll be in a different phase of my career then. Maybe then I can put everything on that mountain biking. This year the combination is just too difficult.”

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