Since launching Just Pro Cycling I’ve got very good at being wrong. I dismissed Philippe Gilbert’s return to cobbles and argued that Nairo Quintana would finally conquer the Tour. This post is an apology disguised as a list. I was wrong about Mathieu van der Poel who looks to be the new superman of road cycling, shredding every doubt into a million pieces. He’s treated viewers to entertaining victories and helped elevate the races of De Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold, as well as sky-rocketing his own reputation. Here’s five embarrassing opinions that we (I) had.
“Stop fooling around with cyclo-cross!”
Both Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert arrived to road racing following multiple cyclo-cross world championship titles. Van Aert wowed at Strade Bianche last year but his performance at Italy’s hybrid race did little to end doubts that cross specialists could dominate the road season. Whilst I’ve never dismissed the superb fitness, power and toughness of road cycling’s shoulder-loading cousins, within me existed a sleeping bias. Surely a transition to the road can’t be this smooth? Van der Poel, Van Aert and Marianne Vos, Zdenek Stybar (now with nine top ten Monument finishes) suggest actually, yes, it can.
“Poor van der Poel stands no chance when thrown into Julian’s playground!”
As van der Poel left the cobbled Monuments behind him, he prepared for a showdown with Julian Alaphilippe. The flying Frenchman has racked up victories over the last two seasons and inherited the eye-rolling predictability previously reserved for Peter Sagan. Nevertheless, many remain super-fans of Alaphilippe and his fun, aggressive racing. He’s Valverde’s heir and the master predator of hilly finishes. However, over the course of one week Van der Poel defeated him convincingly at Brabantse, and again with a stunning show of thievery at Amstel Gold.
The Full Package?
“There’s plenty of climbing at Amstel Gold…”
The cyclo-cross toolkit is a relative unknown to the average ‘roadie’. It’s obviously a remarkably tough discipline but what skills can be packaged up for the transition to road? This season we’ve been reminded that pretty much everything which made van der Poel a World Champion at cross has come in useful on the road. He’s a frighteningly fast finisher, capable of unleashing power uphill as well as on the flat. However, unlike conventional sprinters, van der Poel won’t be dislodged easily from a bunch and has no problem hauling his way into breakaways. He’s versatile and unafraid of any terrain.
A Lack of Experience
“These cross guys have the power, but what about race craft?”
Van der Poel is a straightforward, smash-mouth, competitor. It was fair to question how his ‘all or nothing’ approach would translate to the sometimes finicky tactical warfare of road cycling. We are often left scratching our heads when riders politic their way through key moments and urge rivals to do their leg work. By contrast, van der Poel isn’t reliant on lead-outs and won’t expect to be pampered. At Amstel Gold he ignored the benefits of drafting and towed a group of lofty talent to the final 500m before sprinting off the front and winning. Yes, van der Poel does have a lack of road experience. No, it hasn’t been a hindrance.
Wearing Dutch colours, you’d be forgiven for forgetting van der Poel rides for Corendon-Circus. Management will have mixed emotions about the fact his stunning form should lead to a first-class, one-way, ticket to the World Tour. For now, however, van der Poel remains a Corendon-Circus rider and the team deserve credit for facilitating his wonderful spring campaign. In fact, they might be part of the reason he has been so successful. Would he have received such an exciting free role at Quick-Step?