Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) is well accustomed to being mentioned in the same breath as Wout van Aert but warned he might not be able to match his old foe as he makes his return to cyclo-cross on Sunday.
The Dutchman, four times world champion, finds himself playing catch-up in the 2021-22 season, with most racers having begun their campaigns in October and his fellow road racers Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) having returned to the fields in early December.
Van der Poel, however, suffered another injury setback in late November in the form of a nasty knee gash that forced him to delay his debut from last weekend to the Boxing Day round of the World Cup in Dendermonde.
Added to the back issue that plagued him for the second part of this year, which he says is still not fully resolved, it has raised questions over his prospects in the coming weeks, but he told the media on Tuesday that he was ready to race.
“I’m quite OK. The knee is healing, finally. The problem was the wound still wasn’t closed but now I can do everything with it again, so that’s going in the right direction,” Van der Poel said.
“Also the back is holding up at the moment. It’s not how I would like but it’s holding up. I did everything I could to be ready for Sunday.”
Speaking in an online press conference ahead of his short trip to Dendermonde this weekend, Van der Poel went into detail on his latest injury setback, revealing it was a “stupid crash” but one that threatened to derail his entire season.
“I wasn’t even training, I was just cruising with a friend through the forest and I just lost my front wheel on a slippery part that I didn’t expect and I hit a gravel section first with my knee, so I was wounded pretty bad. I immediately felt that it wasn’t good,” he explained.
“After the crash they cleaned it and cut away some dead flesh. I stayed off the bike for four days and when I started training again the first two days were OK but then there was a lot of pain pedalling, so I had to stop again for five or six days.”
Van der Poel had to delay his trip to a team training camp in December and cancel plans to make his return at the Rucphen round of the World Cup on December 18. He says it cost him 12 days of important preparation time but he revealed he initially feared it would derail his entire season.
“I was afraid it would take too long. My cyclo-cross season was already really short, so I would have missed this whole [Christmas] period, then maybe I wouldn’t have done the cyclo-cross season,” he said. “But now I’ve been back on bike for a few weeks and the knee is holding up OK, so it’s fine.”
Van der Poel was unsure quite where his chances of success in Dendermonde stand. He has shown in recent years that he doesn’t need much time to get up to speed, but he has perhaps lost a march on his long-time rival, Van Aert.
The Belgian, with whom Van der Poel has shared the past seven world titles, has made a remarkable return to ‘cross with three wins from three appearances, first blowing the competition away in Boom before winning in Essen and then again at the snowy World Cup round in Val di Sole.
“Wout is in really good shape. I expected him to be at the immediately and win, but not in the way he did it,” Van der Poel said. “That was quite impressive actually, so that was nice to see.
“Maybe, yeah, [I can compete] for the win. The level behind Wout is something I would normally be able to follow. When I came back into cyclo-cross and could see how far he rode away sometimes, I don’t know if I have that kind of legs already to follow him but I should be able to be in the group behind. Hopefully I can surprise myself as well.”