Mathieu van der Poel - riding towards greatness

The Dutchman has added the Strade Bianche to his list of honours with big cyclo-cross and mountain bike victories to his name too. Can the 26-year-old become an all-time great?

10 min By Ken Browne
Mathieu van der Poel February 2021
(Picture by Lairys Laurent/ABACA)

Mathieu van der Poel isn't just the most talented cyclist on the planet, he's three of them...

All at the same time.

Road, cyclo-cross, and mountain bike (MTB): the sport of cycling has never seen one rider challenge - and win - in all three disciplines before.

In March, the 26-year-old launched a blistering attacking burst to become the first Dutchman to win the Strade Bianche road race.

That was just weeks after he beat old rival Wout van Aert to claim his fourth cyclo-cross world title in Ostend, Belgium.

So what makes van der Poel, also known as MVDP, different?

Part genes, part genius, part relentless competitive spirit.

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Pure cycling @canyon

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“Mathieu has something very special, like a young Peter Sagan. They don’t make them every year.” - Two-time cyclo-cross world champion Sven Nys speaking to Cyclingtips.com

Belgian-born MVDP has shown he can beat the very best in road cycling.

He won the Dutch road race title in July 2018 before taking silver at the European Championships in Glasgow.

And he made a huge impression in his first Spring Classics in 2019, winning the Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold Race, and coming close in the Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders.

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Out there with the big guns yesterday @brabantsepijlofficial

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But mountain biking is the discipline he has in mind as he targets Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020. Van der Poel clinched his first World Cup race in Nove Mesto and showcased his versatility once again by taking gold at the European Championships.

Born to ride

Cycling is in van der Poel's blood.

His grandfather is Frenchman Raymond Poulidor whose eight podium finishes at the Tour de France between 1962 and 1976, including three as runner-up, earned him the unfortunate nickname 'The Eternal Second'.

Poulidor was unlucky to run into some top riders including five-time winners Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx, although he did claim the 1964 Vuelta a España for his only Grand Tour victory.

An accomplished stage rider, Poulidor took the Paris-Nice and the Critérium du Dauphiné two times apiece, and one-day classics like the Milan-San Remo and Flèche Wallonne.

He also reached the podium at the Road World Championships four times, but never made the top step.

Runner-up Raymond Poulidor (L) congratulates Jacques Anquetil on his fifth consecutive Tour de France win in July 1964.
Runner-up Raymond Poulidor (L) congratulates Jacques Anquetil on his fifth consecutive Tour de France win in July 1964.

Mathieu's father, and Poulidor's son-in-law, is Adri van der Poel, who enjoyed success on the road and in cyclo-cross.

As a 24-year-old, the Dutchman claimed silver behind Greg LeMond at the 1983 Road World Championships in Altenrheim, Switzerland.

Van der Poel Sr actually represented the Netherlands at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, finishing seventh in the men's road race.

In 1985, he won the Brabantse Pijl and Clasica de San Sebastian and was runner-up in the World Cyclo-cross Championships.

The 1986 Tour of Flanders and the 1990 Amstel Gold Race were his biggest road successes in subsequent years with van der Poel taking silver at four consecutive World Cyclo-cross Championships from 1988 to 1991.

He then switched full-time to cyclo-cross and was rewarded with his first world title in Montreuil near Paris in 1996 at the age of 36.

Adri van der Poel wins the Elite Men's race at the 1996 World Cyclo-cross Championships in Montreuil, France
Adri van der Poel wins the Elite Men's race at the 1996 World Cyclo-cross Championships in Montreuil, France

He is rated as one of the great Dutch cyclists of his era, if not all time.

Sibling rivalry

Mathieu was born on 19 January 1995, two and a half years after brother David, just over the Belgian border in Kapellen near Antwerp.

Like many male siblings, they were fiercely competitive.

Their grandfather, 'Papy Poulidor', told French newspaper Liberation that Mathieu would become so enraged at his big brother beating him in races round the garden that he would shove David into his mother's plants.

That will to win was evident in everything Mathieu did.

"Mathieu always wanted to win, everywhere, all the time. Whether it's Playstation or Monopoly, he can not finish second!" - David van der Poel speaking to French newspaper Liberation

And David speaks with acceptance, even admiration, about his younger and more successful brother who beat him to take the U23 Dutch national title in 2015.

The following year, he told Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad that Mathieu as a cyclist "had all the skills".

"Everything was a big playground for him. He was more daring, he was more graceful, and he could always climb faster than me." - David van der Poel on brother Mathieu

Early signs

The signs that MVDP might become something special were clear from an early stage.

He won the cyclo-cross world junior title in 2012 in Koksijde, Belgium and retained it the following year in Louisville, Kentucky.

In the 2012-13 season he raced 30 times and won all 30 times.

Not satisfied with being junior cyclo-cross king, the Dutch youngster took part in the junior events at the 2013 Road World Championships in Florence.

He won the road race in Italy and then turned pro with BKCP-Powerplus (now Corendon-Circus) the following year, joining his brother David on the team.

Mathieu van der Poel wins the junior road race at the 2013 Road World Championships in Florence, Italy.
Mathieu van der Poel wins the junior road race at the 2013 Road World Championships in Florence, Italy.

Senior success

His senior trajectory has been just as impressive.

MVDP largely stuck to cyclo-cross initially, winning the world crown in 2015 before reclaiming it this year from Wout van Aert after the Belgian had won three consecutive titles.

But in 2018, he contested the whole of the mountain bike cross-country season and took second overall as well as third place at the World Championships, both times behind Switzerland's Olympic champion Nino Schurter.

That year, he just lost out to Matteo Trentin in the road race at the European Championships in Glasgow.

Mathieu van der Poel takes road race second behind Matteo Trentin at the 2018 European Championships in Glasgow, UK
Mathieu van der Poel takes road race second behind Matteo Trentin at the 2018 European Championships in Glasgow, UK

Having started 2019 by claiming his second senior cyclo-cross world title, MVDP switched seamlessly to the road again.

This is Corendon-Circus' first year as a UCI Professional Contintental team, and they announced their arrival in style as the 24-year-old took victory on Stage 1 of the Tour of Antalya in Turkey.

And the anticipation ahead of his first Spring Classics reached fever pitch as he warmed up by taking the Grand Prix de Denain.

First up was the Gent-Wevelgem on 31 March where he finished fourth in a bunch sprint behind Alexander Kristoff.

He then took victory in the semi-classic Dwars door Vlaanderen.

A few days later, he was in contention at Tour de Flanders but a freak technical problem caused a crash which sent him flying over the handlebars.

Everyone, including him, thought his race was over.

But he somehow still managed to finish fourth.

And 10 days after that, MVDP grimly held off Julian Alaphillipe and the rest of his rivals from the front to take the Brabantse Pijl which his father won back in 1985.

With the 2020 season disrupted by COVID-19, van der Poel managed to retain his cyclo-cross world title and take the rescheduled Tour of Flanders in October.

It was a tight finish, but he again got the better of van Aert on his home patch to take the prestigious one-day classic.

And 2021 has started superbly, winning his third consecutive cyclo-cross world crown (his fourth in all), and taking the Strade Bianche in scintillating fashion.

Cycling superhero

Van der Poel is often compared to three-time consecutive road race world champion Peter Sagan, who also started his career in both cyclo-cross and MTB. Sagan even finished second in the 2008 junior world champs in Treviso.

But MVDP achieved more as a junior and his spectacular transition road suggests he could even outstrip the Slovak on the road.

Sagan had 100 pro wins and three consecutive world road titles by the age of 27, and went back to mountain bikes dreaming of gold at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

But after a promising start, one of three punctures on the day took him out of contention as Schurter claimed gold.

MVDP intends to follow a similar path and took on mountain bike king Schurter in 2018 with the Olympics already in his mind.

In September 2017, he told Dutch national broadcaster NOS, "My intention is to go to the Olympic Games. That is the highest goal, and cyclo-cross is not an Olympic discipline."

And he intends to keep up his superhuman training and racing schedule, competing in all three disciplines, all the way to Tokyo.

"I will definitely ride a full cyclo-cross program for a few more seasons, and I will combine the ‘cross with the road and mountain biking until the Olympic Games, after which a discipline may fall away." - Mathieu van der Poel

Van der Poel's exploits have also attracted the interests of the big teams in the peloton, but he insists he will stay loyal to Corendon-Circus.

"I have let all the teams know that they have to wait for the time being. I am still under contract until 2023."

Are you not entertained?

The barrier bunny-hops, the wheelies at the finish line, tail whipping jumps, skidding around corners, Mathieu van der Poel is a showman.

For him, being the best is a joy as well as a job.

“It’s not really for the crowds, I think it’s mostly for myself. It’s something I do in training as well, it’s something I enjoy doing. It’s just my style of riding.”

In the age of social media, Mathieu is a headline act, he has nearly 220k followers on Instagram.

He also starred in Belgian reality TV show "Kroonprinsen" or Crown Princes, which followed him, his biggest rival Van Aert, Laurens Sweeck, and Eli Iserbyt for a season.

MVDP comes across as a young man loving life.

In his down time his four great loves dominate: girlfriend Roxanne Bertels, the family dalmatians Luna and Solly, his three BMWs, and a big plate of traditional family frites with a generous helping of mayonnaise.

Harbouring little fear of the odd hamburger here and there either, even his diet is a debate in Belgium, where he lives.

In 2016, he posted a pic of him eating a big plate of frites and Belgian commentator Michel Wuyts couldn't help himself live on air:

“Mathieu eats what he wants and still beats everyone.” - Sporza commentator Michel Wuyts

But just like the Sunday frites, family is at the root of it all for MVDP.

"Extraterrestrial Rider"

Journalist Renaat Schotte has been covering cycling for more than 20 years, and sees something extra special in Mathieu.

“You don’t have to look far for an explanation, it’s simply in the genes.” Renaat Schotte to cyclingtips.com

“He’s the grandson of Raymond Poulidor," Schotte continues, "one of the greatest of his time. And though Adrie Van der Poel wasn’t a born winner, I think that the winning capacity, Mathieu got from his father.

"I think his father probably has a little bit less talent, but in terms of character, Adrie Van der Poel was really a badass rider. And I think he made the most out of more limited capacities than his son has."

"Add the Poulidor genes to it, and then you have this extraterrestrial rider.” - Schotte on MVDP

Greatest of all time?

There is a chance van der Poel could compete in both mountain bike and road disciplines at Tokyo, where his fierce competitive instincts could carry him all the way to the top of the podium.

If he were to fulfill his Olympic goal, then perhaps he could work towards winning the prize which eluded his grandfather.

'The Eternal Second' sometimes has a dream that "Mathieu fights for the Tour de France. And he wins the yellow jersey".

He still has a long way to go, but Mathieu van der Poel is on the right track to becoming cycling's greatest of all time.

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