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Van der Poel on Target to Renew his Rainbow Stripes

Current elite cyclocross World Champion Mathieu van der Poel [BKCP-Corendon] is right on target to re-claim his title this Sunday at the 2016 World Championships to be held in Zolder, Belgium.

In the ultimate test held last Sunday at the Hoogerheide World Cup, the Dutch rider dominated his competition, shooting across the line 48 seconds before the second placed rider and main rival Wout van Aert who is usually better suited for such muddy terrain. “This track was not really made for me but if I’m in good shape I can handle every kind of course,” explains Van der Poel directly after the event. While he may not be considered a mud specialist, this 21 year old standout is indeed developing into an all-around rider where he can challenge for the win on any type of terrain.

According to Van der Poel, being a professional cyclocross racer is more than just a job. “For me, cyclocross is pure fun - always searching the limits on the bike. Every race is different, every track is different and every lap is different. The course is always changing so it makes it very fun to be as technical as possible and to search your limits in every corner,” exclaims Van der Poel. Adding, “With cyclocross, I always find a way to amuse myself, and that’s most important – that I do something that I really enjoy doing because otherwise you can’t do it for so many years. If you don’t like cycling you will never be a great one because you have to sacrifice so much to get to the top.” 

In Van der Poel’s world, though, he admits, “It doesn’t feel like sacrifices if you cross the finish line first. Winning races makes it all worthwhile because that’s what you train for, that’s why you watch what you eat, that’s why you rest a lot. It all makes sense when you win a race. We made our hobby, the thing we love doing most, into our living and that’s really the most important thing. If you’re in the woods and after half an hour you are already tired of the exercises, then it’s very difficult to do it another hour. You’re never going to be better if you’re not pushing yourself further every time and maybe do an extra sprint or something like that. My love for cyclocross…it’s in my nature I think.” 

His passion for the sport surely comes in handy when he has to do those long hours on the road bike in the offseason, in addition to his interval workouts in the woods. During the cross season, though, he shortens his intervals to 2-5 minute efforts to save something for the weekend races. In terms of specific training priorities, Van der Poel stresses, “Firstly, power is the most important thing, then just after it comes technical skills because you can win a race with technical skills – as long as you can maintain them while riding at a higher heart rate which becomes more and more difficult with every lap because you get tired. Lastly is mental skills, because if you are already really strong and technically solid you can win a cross race by a minute over the rest. But the fast courses are difficult to win so you really have to use your head.”

When asked what attributed most to his rise to the top so early in his career, Van der Poel is quick to mention his stellar gene pool. Father Adrie was 1996 elite Cyclocross World Champion in addition to his superb palmares on the road including wins at Tour of Flanders, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Amstel Gold, Clásica de San Sebastián, Brabantse Pijl, and stages in the Tour de France. Mathieu’s grandfather, Frenchman Raymond Poulidor, was also a famous road racer having won events such as La Flèche Wallonne , Milan-San Remo, Paris-Nice, numerous stages at the Tour de France as well as three silver and five bronze medals for the overall at the Tour de France. These overall performances is what earned him his nickname of “The Eternal Second.”

Van der Poel is also just as quick to credit his Shimano-equipped STEVENS machine for getting him to the finish line on time. “For sure the bike is really good. I have already won many races on it. It’s much lighter than my previous one – a really good change for me. I also love the disc brakes since the most important thing in a cyclocross race is that you can always rely on your brakes. Recently I won the Superprestige Diegem event where I used the limits of the disc brakes [by taking more speed than Kevin Pauwels going into the race-determining turn on the final lap]. I wasn’t able to do that with cantilevers. I would have braked with eyes closed and just have gone straight in that corner. Searching for the limits is really important to me, so now with the disc brakes I’m enjoying cyclocross much more because I always have brakes,” explains Van der Poel. Adding, “Since I’ve been riding a bike, disc brakes is the best innovation together with the [Shimano] Di2 electronic shifting. It shifts really fast and, in cyclocross, you often have frozen hands and haven’t got the power to shift, but with Di2 you just have to push a little bit and it shifts, even when you have to shift from the small to the big chain ring.”

As for his STEVENS’ color scheme makeovers the last year from “Sniper” camouflage representing his racing tactics, to artistic rainbow highlighting his World title, to the current orange Dutch theme in honor of his recent National title, Van der Poel gushes, “Style motivates me as well. I’m always thinking about style because I believe it’s really an important part of cycling. The team is always motivating me by doing such things. They know it can trigger me to dig deeper in the race.”

Van der Poel will surely take this extra motivation with him into Sunday’s World Championships which holds a special meaning for him. “It is simply the most beautiful and special jersey to ride around in – that’s for sure! It’s also the highest attainable title in the sport of cyclocross. The fact that you can ride around in it for a full year and everyone sees that you were the best in the world on that day – that’s really special. This is why I will do everything to win it again.” In addition to his current title, he has been Junior World Champion three times – once on the road, and twice in cyclocross.

While he admits there may be some external pressure put on him, he muses, “The fact that I already was World Champion puts me at ease, although I do put myself under a bit of pressure. With the knee injury [including surgery] I missed the beginning of the season and for myself I have the feeling that this title could make it a successful season. That also shows the importance of that one day, if that one day could turn your whole season around.” Since Van der Poel’s return to racing on 22 November at Koksijde World Cup where he placed an impressive 3rd, he’s won nine of the sixteen events he’s entered, including the last five.

Going into the World Championships, Van der Poel’s strategy is quite flexible. “For me, everything is good. I proved that I can also win the race in the final lap like I did the last weeks. That was, for me, an enormous boost, that I have the confidence again that I could win in that way. Ideally, I would like to go into the final lap with a half-minute advantage over the rest so that you are almost certain that you will become World Champion. That I had in Tabor [World Championships last year] but with a much less time advantage. If you then can win with such a small advantage, it is an unbelievable feeling in those last meters to the finish.” 

Some of Van der Poel’s competitors including Van Aert took off last week for Spain to get in their final hard block of training under sunny skies, while Van der Poel opted to remain at home in Belgium to get the job done. It certainly paid off if his latest world cup win was any indication. “I’m glad that I was able to already recover from the hard week of training. I can go to sleep tonight with a good feeling. I prefer to go into worlds this way than finishing behind other riders today.”

Will Van der Poel renew his rainbow stripes? While time may tell, Paul Van Den Bosch, coach of Belgian racer Sven Nys, sums it up best. “If Mathieu comes with the same legs he had today [in Hoogerheide World Cup], we’ll need a force from above to beat him.”

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