Mathieu van der Poel is just days away from the most important goal of his winter, his likely victory at the UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Tábor on Sunday. He claimed his first elite rainbow jersey in the same town in 2015 over Wout van Aert, and nine years and five more ‘cross world titles later, Van der Poel is better than ever, having won all but one race he’s done this season.
After his 12th win of the season at the UCI Cyclocross World Cup in Hoogerheide, Van der Poel recalled that first victory as a moment in time that still stands out in his memory.
He and Van Aert decided to race the elites instead of the under-23s just a week before the race. Van Aert was beset with mechanical problems in the opening laps in Tábor in 2015 and Van der Poel soloed to the victory. “It was a turning point in our careers for both of us,” Van der Poel said in the post-race press conference in Hoogerheide.
“The finish was quite emotional,” he said, and when asked if it compared with his Road World Championships victory in Glasgow last year, he said, “Equalling [Tábor in 2015] now is difficult. The first time is often the best.”
Van der Poel has stated from the start of his campaign that his only goal was another world title in cyclocross, and he is the overwhelming favourite. But the World Cup in Benidorm showed that incidents like crashes can ruin this ambition.
“It’s always possible, but if I don’t win in Tábor, I can’t call it a successful winter,” he said, adding he doesn’t worry about losing. “I’ve been in that situation several times in recent years. In the past, I might have dwelled on that, but now I don’t. I also did everything I had to do, there’s nothing more to change that. We will see. I won’t be nervous anymore either. And that, in turn, will bring some peace of mind.”
The race will be the end of his ‘cross season as he turns his focus to the road, where he will defend his title in Paris-Roubaix and try for a third win in the Tour of Flanders. While Van Aert and Tom Pidcock opted to miss Worlds and focus on their preparation for the road season, Van der Poel admitted that ‘cross might not be the best choice for training for the road.
In 2023, Van der Poel had his most successful year after a shorter seven-race ‘cross campaign, winning Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix, and taking second in the Tour of Flanders and E3 Saxo Classic, and he weighed the merits of his cyclocross pursuits.
“I don’t think it really adds value towards the spring. Above all, I want the world title. The other crosses are no longer goals in themselves. It’s not the ideal training for spring – you’re better off with five or six hours of endurance training than riding for an hour at breakneck speed,” Van der Poel said.
Asked if he would race ‘cross again next season, he said, “I’ll have to think about that and see,” adding that stopping after a seventh title might be nice. “First elite world title in cyclocross in 2015, now again in Tábor. It could be full circle, but I don’t know yet. That still needs to be looked at.”
If he does quit, don’t blame the unruly fans who abused him during his various solo victories this season. “I don’t include that in my consideration. If I like doing it, I’ll keep doing it.”
Van der Poel has long prioritised his personal enjoyment of the discipline over marginal gains elsewhere. “That’s why I still do it. But … once in a while, a winter without [‘cross] can also be good, a winter of mental rest once in a while.”
It’s almost impossible to believe but Van der Poel didn’t give road racing much consideration beyond being a way to stay fit in the summer until 2018.
“I didn’t think then that I would ever find road races important. I never thought about it – it didn’t even really interest me. When I became Dutch road champion in Hoogerheide, then I decided to ride a spring on the road as well.”
His focus on the road was not only lucrative for him, but also helped his team turn into a Pro Continental squad for the 2019 road season, a requirement so he could race the Spring Classics, and, after three enormously successful seasons, they joined the WorldTour in 2023.
It paid off, too. In 2019, he won a memorable Amstel Gold Race along with Brabantse Pijl, GP de Denain, Dwars door Vlaanderen, and finished just off the podium in the Tour of Flanders.
Will Van der Poel’s cyclocross career go down in history as bookended by world titles in Tábor? That depends on several factors, most notably the riders trying to deprive him of the victory.
Van der Poel’s closest competitors this year aside from Van Aert and Pidcock, who will not race this weekend, have come from within his Dutch team. He named two Belgians as his biggest rivals, Michael Vanthourenhout and Thibau Nys.
His win was marginally less dominant than previous ones – he won by only a few seconds over Dutchmen Joris Nieuwenhuis and Pim Ronhaar after Nys slid out in the last lap, but said that isn’t an indicator of anyone’s form.
“A week before is not the reference for the world championships. That never means anything for the legs at the championship itself. But I am confident that I handled it well towards Tábor. I wasn’t at my best [in Hoogerheide], but that’s because of the hard training over the past few weeks.
“If I have done everything correctly and we think so – I already had a very good winter – normally we should see the best version of myself next week. That’s what everyone who starts there wants.
“I was prepared for everything. And ideally, I would have liked a tough mud cross but it won’t be that either. But I think I have already proved that I can handle all surfaces. I am prepared for anything, as well as for a tactical race. Although it’s easier if I can do my own thing. But if I am not alone after two or three laps, I will certainly not panic.”
Get unlimited access to all of our coverage of the Spring Classics- including reporting, breaking news and analysis from Strade Bianche, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and more. Find out more.