Sunday, 5 February 2023
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‘I need to be on my top level to beat Van Aert’

Van der Poel before the Val di Sole UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup

Mathieu van der Poel is a few minutes late to our video call because he’s in an appointment with an osteopath. It’s a fitting representation of what the Dutchman’s life during training camp for the next few weeks will look like: days shaped by training, recovering and receiving treatment for his back. 

“Now I’m in Spain, we’ll invest a lot of time and energy again to get the back fixed,” Van der Poel says. “It’s been an issue since my crash in the Olympics but I’ve tried to work on it as best as possible to be in shape for the Worlds.”

The dreaded day in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic XCO race which Van der Poel references had repercussions that have followed the Dutch rider ever since. No one will remember it better than him: the way the bike flew out of his grasp and clattered down the rocks beneath him, how he tumbled like a rag doll behind it and was able to stand up straight away, but then had to gather himself by the side of the track, shaken and surprised, mouth grimacing in agony.

Van der Poel before the Val di Sole UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup (Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)

Since then, injuries have followed Van der Poel like a bad smell. The back pain has kept returning, and a separate knee injury forced the Alpecin-Deceuninck rider to have surgery at the start of 2022 to remove scar tissue. Wins in the Tour of Flanders and in the Giro d’Italia last year looked like a sure sign that Van der Poel was back to his best, but those tell-tale indications of returned discomfort in his back came to light again in recent cyclo-cross races.

At the Zonhoven World Cup last week, the 27-year-old could be seen getting out of the saddle to stretch his back during the race, eventually finishing a distant second to Wout van Aert. “It’s not going how I like it. My back is hurting again and it’s a bit frustrating,” he said after the race. “It’s not fun to race ‘cross at the moment.”

Naturally, Van der Poel’s performance and words in Zonhoven has raised some questions about his participation in the World Championships that take place at the start of February. Many fans were expecting – and hoping for – a big showdown between the Dutch rider and his long-time rival, Wout van Aert, but even Van der Poel himself is realistic about the likelihood of this happening if he can’t get his injury under control during his training camp.

“It will be difficult [to beat Van Aert],” Van der Poel admits. “But it’s always been…

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