Mathieu van der Poel had a few days’ rest and relaxation in the Veneto pencilled into his schedule between the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships and Friday’s Serenissima Gravel, but rather than avail of a rare spot of downtime, the Dutchman figured that he might as well race.
On Wednesday morning, Van der Poel could have opted for a lie-in and then a gentle ride to go and soak up the Autumn sunshine on the terrace of some café in Bassano del Grappa. Instead, he chose to race the Giro del Veneto after volunteering himself for a spot in Alpecin-Deceuninck’s line-up. Leisure, it seems, is anathema to the worldview of a man seemingly hardwired to compete.
“I was here for the week anyway,” Van der Poel said before the Giro del Veneto when he emerged from his team bus on Padova’s striking Prato della Valle. “It’s difficult to stay training so I preferred to do a race to keep busy, otherwise I’m staying in the hotel all day, so I just said I’d do the race.”
Van der Poel’s presence instantly made him the favourite for the Giro del Veneto. Indeed, his status is such that last year’s winner, his teammate Xandro Meurisse, even surrendered the number one bib number to him, like a player yielding the number seven squad number to Cristiano Ronaldo.
After his ill-fated expedition to the World Championships in Australia, which ended with a charge of common assault following an altercation with two teenage girls in his hotel on the eve of the race, Van der Poel was perhaps keener than usual to end his road campaign with a win. He wasn’t aboard the key move containing teammate Jay Vine that went clear just ahead of the local laps around Vicenza, however, and he opted to pull out of the race shortly before the finish.
At Serenissima Gravel on Friday, Van der Poel brings the curtain down on a campaign that he confessed had been more taxing than normal. A nagging back injury delayed the start of his road season until mid-March, and he looked to make up for lost time by combining the Classics, Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.
Victory at the Tour of Flanders and the opening day of the Giro were the high points of that sequence, but by July, when he abandoned the Tour, Van der Poel’s fatigue was evident, even if he rallied with a hat-trick of wins in the build-up to that doomed trip to Australia.
“I think this year the mental fatigue is a bit bigger than the physical one. There’s not really a lot left,” Van der Poel said on Wednesday morning. “The Worlds of Gravel is something I wanted to do because it’s a bit special, but then these two races came extra. I will be happy if I can take a little break again after Friday.”
At this juncture, Van der Poel has yet to decide upon the minute details of his 2023 calendar, but he can already picture the broad brushstrokes. After missing most of last year’s cyclo-cross season, he will return to the off-road circuit this winter, while his road schedule will be focused on the Classics and the Tour.
“For sure, I will only do one Grand Tour next year,” Van der Poel said. “I think this year was a bit exceptional as well because there was a chance to take the pink jersey in the Giro, but otherwise I will do the same as I did in the years before: just 10-15 cyclocross races, then I’ll prepare myself for the Classics season, then take some rest and go for the Tour.
“I’ll decide when my cyclo-cross season starts after I’ve had a break, but I think it will be the end of November, somewhere there, but I’m not sure.”
Van der Poel’s various commitments on all terrains see him toggle between road, cyclo-cross, mountain bike and now gravel events across the calendar. One season seems to bleed into the next and there is precious little respite to be had. Only the back injury that blighted him last winter offered any respite from competition, though the lengthy rehabilitation process could scarcely be classed as a break.
In a week that has seen Vincenzo Nibali, Philippe Gilbert and Alejandro Valverde call time on careers that last almost two decades or more, Van der Poel admitted that he and his contemporaries were unlikely to match the longevity of previous generations given the ever-increasing demands of the sport.
“I read an interview with Serge Pauwels last week, where he said that the new generation is only going to last until their 30s, maybe 35, but not anymore like Gilbert and Valverde. I think that makes sense,” Van der Poel said.
“I think it’s the evolution of cycling. If you look at [Juan] Ayuso, as well, he’s 19 years old and already on the podium of a Grand Tour. For me, it’s not possible to do this for 15 years, but that’s talking for me. I can only talk for myself. As I’m feeling now, I will definitely not go on until I’m 40 years old.”