Mathieu Van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) is back on the cyclo-cross tracks. One could be inclined to call it his natural environment: that’s where he first showed his talent to the world and that’s where he currently dominates outrageously, with nine victories in as many races since the beginning of November. But anywhere he can ride any bike appears to be MVDP’s natural environment, as he switches from one discipline to the other with absolute ease and total success.
The Dutch superstar transcends the seasons, as he has demonstrated brilliantly in 2019. After capping off an extremely successful cyclo-cross winter with the Men Elite UCI World title, he immediately made a stellar spring debut on the road in the UCI WorldTour (victories at Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Amstel Gold Race, 4th in Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Field and the Ronde van Vlaanderen). In the summer, he enjoyed his mountain bike, claiming victories in the cross-country Olympic (XCO) European Championships as well as three rounds of the Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup. He then came back to the road for more success ahead of the autumn (and a failed attempt at the rainbow jersey) and has now returned to cyclo-cross, where he apparently can’t be beaten.
His last defeat in a Telenet UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup race dates back to December 2017, when Belgium’s Wout van Aert dominated him in Namur (Belgium). Since then, he’s claimed 11 wins, and his return to the series this November, for the fourth round in Tabor (Czech Republic), was another display of his excellence, both mental and physical. Three days after the death of his grandfather, the French cycling icon Raymond Poulidor, Van der Poel had to start far back on the grid and fight his way to victory ahead of the UCI World Cup leader Eli Iserbyt.
“I wish I could bunnyhop high enough to say hello”, he then wrote on social media as a tribute to Raymond Poulidor.
Poulidor was Van der Poel’s biggest fan. Adri Van der Poel, Mathieu’s father, was also a talented cyclist but, according to Poulidor, “the grandson is stronger than his father and his grandfather”. MVDP still has a long way to go to match his grandfather’s record of 189 victories on the road but he’s already shown he can be as versatile as his father (who also won the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships and the Amstel Gold Race), and probably even more so.
Robic, De Vlaeminck, Evans… MVDP does it better
Former riders were used to combining road racing in spring and summer with cyclo-cross in the colder seasons. Some current riders still use this rythm. Among the 31 riders who’ve won the Men Elite UCI Cyclo-cross World title, we can see the likes of the Frenchman Jean Robic (winner of the Tour de France in 1947), the Swiss Pascal Richard (winner of the road race at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games) and the Belgian Roger De Vlaeminck, who won all five Monuments of road cycling in the 1970s (Milan-Sanremo, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia).
The rise of mountain bike has also seen its champions prove their talents across different disciplines. Winner of the XCO UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in 1998 and 1999, Cadel Evans later dominated the UCI ProTour (the predecessor of the UCI WorldTour) in 2007, before claiming the rainbow jersey at the 2009 UCI Road World Championships and the yellow jersey with his historic victory in the 2011 Tour de France.
Track stars can also conquer on the road, as the Brits recently showed – Geraint Thomas and Bradley Wiggins both shone inside the velodromes before winning the Tour de France. Sir Wiggo even won World and Olympic titles both on the road and on the track. Not to mention the many successes claimed by their British comrade Mark Cavendish, who also won rainbow jerseys in the velodrome and on the road.
What’s unique about Van der Poel is that he chases all the prizes at the same time. He combines the best of skills sharpened in different environments, apparently without suffering setbacks as he switches from one to another. In 2018, he was the Dutch national champion in cyclo-cross, MTB and on the road. In 2020 alone, he’s set to chase another rainbow jersey with the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Dübendorf (Switzerland), 1-2 February; he will then take on an ambitious road programme that sees him eyeing a first Grand Tour participation in La Vuelta a España; but his sights are mainly set on the Tokyo Olympic Games where he wants mountain bike gold.
In this respect, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot might be the most suitable point of comparison. In 2015, the Frenchwoman held UCI World titles in three different disciplines at the same time after winning the road race in Ponferrada (Spain, September 2014), the cyclo-cross in Tabor (Czech Republic, February 2015) and the mountain bike XCO in Vallnord (Andorra, September 2015). After a few frustrating seasons, Ferrand-Prévot has refound herself in the mountain bike disciplines, claiming two World titles in 2019, both in the XCO and in the cross-country Marathon (XCM). The Dutchwoman Marianne Vos is another fine rider who also came close to holding World titles in three disciplines simultaneously, with her numerous wins on the road, in cyclo-cross and on the track.
Such champions are unique in the way their skill range enables them to open new horizons for themselves and for their sport. Mathieu Van der Poel doesn’t have a natural habitat. He has an incredible ability to ride anywhere.