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…