Mathieu van der Poel tackles Heusden-Zolder
The Van der Poel family has settled down in a remote B&B on the edge of Koksijde, Belgium. Adrie – their father and 1996 World Cyclo-cross champion – puts the bikes into the van. Their mother Corinne, née Poulidor and daughter of the most famous Tour de France runner-up, busies herself in the house. David, 22, waits in the bedroom, stretched out on his bed. His brother, 19, is already on the massage table; the masseur and the mechanic are here too. This is the inner circle of the Van der Poel dynasty, ensuring the siblings’ success. Today, Friday November 21, the two brothers have finished training: five, six laps of the sandy route in the Koksijde dunes, on the North Sea coast, venue for the second leg of the 2014-15 UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup.
Mathieu is lying down; David is seated at the table in front of him. “We’ve always been together, it would be strange for us not to be in the same team”, explains the elder. They’ve spent years taking the same route: through youths then juniors, and for a year now the two boys have been in the Under-23s category, wearing the same BKCP-Powerplus jersey. At Hilvarenbeek in 2013, the brothers shared national glory, each in their own category – the Dutch Youth Champion title for Mathieu and the Junior Champion title for David. “It was a very special day, I was champion in the morning and David was champion in the afternoon” recalls the younger of the two, under the watchful eye of Adrie, who has finished with the van.
These siblings are feeding off cross-generational cycling exploits: Raymond Poulidor, Adrie van der Poel (six-time Dutch champion), uncles Henri Poulidor and Jac van der Poel, and now David and Mathieu. It isn’t hard, however, to see what separates the two riders. David loves travelling around Europe with cyclo-cross while his brother swears by Belgium alone. “It’s more relaxed elsewhere”, murmurs the elder, who rides in races in Switzerland or Luxembourg. “The best are in Belgium”, counters the younger, who skipped the English leg in Milton Keynes. His brother is fighting for “one World Cup leg per country” while Mathieu can only see Koksijde, Namur, Zolder… pure cyclo-cross territory.
Road cycling is more “tactical” (Mathieu van der Poel)
Adrie observes the exchange between his two offspring. Their differences are revealed on the track: “David is too nice, he thinks too much about helping,” he sighs. The elder, 6th at the 2014 World Championships in Hoogerheide (Netherlands) while his younger brother was 3rd, admits it: “When I don’t have the legs, I prefer to work for the others…”. David doesn’t flinch under the hands of his physio, he simply doesn’t like not having the legs. This season, his form is improving: 6th in Valkenburg in the Under-23s, 3rd in Koksijde in the Elite race, 2nd in Namur at Under-23. But Wout Van Aert, champion in Hoogerheide, often stands in his way, like in Wallonia, where the Belgian prodigy took victory after Mathieu had led the race before falling twice. “He has made a lot of progress in a year, more than me, so I have work to do.”
Mathieu still thinks about the date of 28 September 2013. Far from the mud of cyclo-cross, in Florence (Italy), he won the Junior Road Race at the UCI World Road World Championships – a surprise victory. In his words: “my greatest”. The guy who needs only his legs for cyclo-cross mentions road cycling and its “tactics”; the science of the peloton. Like their father, who rode several Grand Tours in the 1980s, the Van der Poel sons alternate off-road in winter with road in summer. But since he moved up to the Under-23s, with forays into Elite, Mathieu has discovered the harshness of the top level. “For the moment we’ll keep going like this, using the road to prepare for the cyclo-cross”, explains Adrie. On the F1 circuit at Heusden-Zolder, Mathieu will go for the win, determined to repeat last season’s exploits.
After the final UCI World Cup stopover in Hoogerheide (January 25), the season ends in Tábor (Czech Republic) with the UCI World Championships (January 31 – February 2). The Under-23 race takes place on February 1, around a fortnight after Mathieu celebrates his 20th birthday. He has always liked the course, in the Youth categories and in the Juniors. “It’s fast, I really like it.” There he will find Van Aert, from whom he will attempt to steal the rainbow jersey.
David takes his turn on the massage table, while Mathieu – like a pro – slips away to his room. You don’t mess around with recovery; ambition is built on a daily basis.