The psychological burden of performing at the top level in any sport cannot be underestimated. It’s understandable that it’s sometimes neglected, given the physical strains that the body must endure, but it undeniably takes a master of both the physical and psychological to perform at an elite level in any athletic endeavour.
Nowhere is this more evident than in cycling, where the complex web of team tactics, personal form, varying parcours, myriad rules and regulations, weather conditions and mechanical elements all add to the daily grind of an already incredibly demanding endurance sport.
Mathieu van der Poel is arguably a master of both of these disparate elements. Physically he is both intimidating and inimitable: there is no-one quite like him, and his presence in a race is an irritant. He is an agitator, an agent of chaos, in the same vein as Julian Alaphillippe yet with a truckload more wattage and a wholly different mindset.
Quite what that mindset is, is either a slippery, ever-changing intangibility, or breath-taking in its simplicity. Via a look back at his 2021 season so far, I plan to try and corner the market in MVDP psycho-analysis and ascertain the answer to the question: what on Earth is he thinking?
CX Lone Wolf
In the winter months, MVDP can be found in the muddy fields of Belgium and the Netherlands, still belligerently excelling at the thing he’s been knocking out of said muddy parks since he was a kid. From the perspective of a road cycling fan, the stoic loyalty that MVDP and Wout van Aert seem to display to cyclocross must seem faintly charming, but it’s the discipline that many riders from that neck of the woods cut their teeth on, and the rugged parcours and short burst, high intensity efforts are a solid foundation for building resilience and lasting fitness across all disciplines of cycling.
In cyclocross, Mathieu is a lone wolf. Like all crossers, to a point. It’s a difficult sport to work in teams, and CX riders operate with a less strictly defined unspoken rulebook than regular road cyclists. Team dynamics and politics are eschewed in favour of just getting the hell on with it. Your teammate falls? You ride on past. As a member of Alpecin-Fenix, Mathieu does have team mates in cyclocross races – sprinter Tim Merlier and Gianni Vermeesch are regulars on the scene – but you wouldn’t know it once the riders hit the parcours.
In the 2020/21 cross season, of 13 races in which he participated Mathieu won nine, and came second in four. And this represents a relatively poor season by his standards, in a discipline in which his dominance is breath-taking.
The World Championships in Ostend represented the pinnacle of MVDP’s mastery of all terrains; whilst Wout van Aert struggled in sliver medal position, and everyone else was left behind, the enduring image that the race left behind was of a solitary, moody, enigmatic loner powering his way through the sand while the North Sea crashed in the background, like a mobile emblem of a modern sporting god. (Not to overstate things, much).
Conclusion: MVDP is perfectly happy to go it alone
The Strength of Many Men
From taking on cyclocross races to working for team mates on the road, Mathieu proved no man is an island by working for his team in some of the early season races. Even when riding in service of others though, he couldn’t swerve the headlines. Leading out Tim Merlier in the final stages of Le Samyn, Mathieu’s left drop handlebar snapped and was left hanging off, forcing him to race the final few hundred metres clasping the stem of his bike instead. Jokes circulated about the immensity of his power and, when viewed alongside the majority of mostly slender pro cyclists, he does appear to be almost too big for his bike. Canyon recalled those models in the wake of the incident but the fact remained that no-one else had broken their handlebars, had they? If anyone was going to do it, it was MVDP.
Conclusion: MVDP is freakishly strong
Unofficial sixth monument Strade Bianche was the first opportunity of the 2021 season to see the big hitters vying for supremacy. Along the iconic sterrato the cream rose to the top and that cream unsurprisingly included Mathieu. His feeling on the day was never in doubt, as he launched successive attacks to distance his rivals until only two remained, Julian Alaphillippe and Egan Bernal.
Neither of them could come close to the explosive power that he detonated up the final short, steep climb of Via Santa Caterina, though. All the words have already been written about this race and I’m not going to attempt to outdo them, but my favourite of all the words written was ‘wattbomb’, coined by Thomas de Gendt to describe the exploits of MVDP and the emerging breed of super-riders who are dominating cycling on every front.
As Mathieu’s power data from Strava was released following the race it became the only suitable description of the most pure, visceral, violent delivery of power through a bike that had been seen in some time.
Conclusion: MVDP does not have the body of a mere human.
‘I was cold‘
Tirreno Adriatico followed. MVDP is not a GC racer, most likely he won’t ever be a GC racer, but his intentions as to stage wins are never in doubt: he wants them. And if he wants one and you, another cyclist, are of a similar mindset, prepare to be disappointed.
The stages on Mathieu’s hitlist are of a certain type: rolling, punchy, hilly, call it what you like – if it’s bumpy but not mountainous it’s right up his street. Uphill kicker to the finish line? Even better. After coming second behind the original master of these types of stage, Alaphilippe, on stage 2 of this year’s edition of Tirreno-Adriatico, Mathieu went one better on stage 3, crossing the line with his arms folded in the ultimate boss pose. His form clearly hadn’t deserted him just yet.
Stage 5 clearly suited him too, but what didn’t suit him, or anyone else for that matter, were the weather conditions. It was a truly disgusting day in Italy’s early Spring and torrential rain soaked the riders as they ploughed round the hilly circuit of Castelfidardo, the skies dark and ominous; it looked grimmer than a Tuesday night in Grimsby.
With just over 50km remaining in the race, a gel packet hanging from his mouth, Mathieu van der Poel kicked from the front of the race and no-one followed. It was to be the decisive move, as despite a late chase from Tadej Pogacar, which given another few hundred metres might have been successful, Mathieu made that insane attack stick to take the stage.
The story doesn’t end there. Sitting at home, watching the chattering teeth of Wout van Aert as the rest of the leading group of chasers dragged their sorry corpses over the final section of the race, we cut to shots of Mathieu laying on the ground having pretty much fallen from his bike, so spent was he after emptying the tank in filthy conditions for 50km, alone. In the post-race interview when asked what possessed him to attack from such a distance, his reply was simply to state ‘I was cold’.
Further studies have yet to be launched into at what point being cold became the drive to continue, despite the horrific conditions and the fact he had nothing left in his body whatsoever, but it’s clear that on this basis, we can conclude that Mathieu van der Poel does not think like the rest of us mere mortals.
Conclusion: MVDP does not have the mind of a mere human
Eyebrows were raised at the wardrobe selection of the Dutchman prior to the first Monument of the season, Milano-San Remo. He opted for white bib shorts, the first time since the 2019 Amstel Gold Race, where he had confirmed his presence on the World Tour stage by taking his second victory in a classic in the space of two weeks.
Although the shorts were originally used for tactical reasons, according his father Adrie van der Poel, to enable him to stand out from Luxembourg champion (at the time) Bob Jungels, word of mouth alleged that the white shorts were a symbol of positivity for Mathieu; like lucky pants, the word was that if MVDP is wearing the white shorts, it meant he was feeling good.
This was unconfirmed following Milano-San Remo; he showed well in the race but didn’t take the victory. As the spring classics wore on, the perceived mindgames went on. At the E3 Saxo Bank Classic at Harelbeke he wore black shorts. Was this a statement that he wasn’t feeling good? Or a double bluff? Were we all reading too much into this? And while everyone was busy discussing Mathieu’s shorts, had he moved on and was busy concentrating on the race? Er, probably.
Conclusion: MVDP does not care what anyone thinks about his shorts (or maybe he does)
‘I missed Wout‘
The rivalry between Mathieu and Wout van Aert is no secret. However the media paint it, as friendly competition or fierce enmity, any race in which both are competing takes on extra significance. Following the E3, a race dominated by Deceuninck-QuickStep and resulting eventually in a win for Kasper Asgreen, Mathieu admitted ‘ik heb Wout gemist; ik heb hem nodig. (I missed Wout; I needed him).’ Van Aert had suffered a puncture and lost touch with the leaders and it was clear from Mathieu’s repeated looks over his shoulder that he was somewhat lost without the familiar sight of the black and yellow of his rival’s Jumbo Visma kit holding his wheel, as per usual.
The post-race interview had cycling fans fixating on its significance. Was it an honest admission of a lack, or more mindgames? Did he miss his rival because van Aert is normally the one he uses to pace himself, before leaving him in his wake? Was it a dig at Wout for not being able to keep up? Or a genuine expression of regret that the one man he truly views as an equal was not able to keep pace and make a race of it that day?
In the end, Asgreen took the win, and the story-tellers among us were left to paint rose-tinted narratives of a man whose fight went out of him, once he didn’t have his number one frenemy to play with any more.
Conclusion: MVDP has hidden depths (or maybe he just likes to mess with us)
The One Where it Didn’t Work
The Tour of Flanders. Arguably the most desirable Monument for the CV of any rider from Belgium or the Netherlands, possibly even overall. Mathieu was wearing the black shorts. But there was no doubting his intention. He was part of an elite group of leaders that struck out with 44km to go in the race and a short while later, when Kasper Asgreen attacked that group, just as he had in Harelbeke a few weeks earlier, van Aert and MVDP were not going to let him go so easily.
The three stayed together until 13km to go when they dropped van Aert; Mathieu presumably deciding he didn’t miss him anymore, and the day would end in a two-up sprint. On social media fans agreed; it was a foregone conclusion. There was no way Kasper Asgreen could best Mathieu van der Poel in a sprint. Yet when the cat and mouse began, it was MVDP on the front, with Asgreen looking confident in his wheels. When Mathieu opened up his sprint with just under 250m to go it seemed early – but he was confident, of course. What could possibly go wrong?
It went wrong. With around 30m to go, he ran out of gas. It wasn’t something we were used to seeing and as Asgreen held his nerve to charge over the line and raise his arms, it was as much of a shock as his wattbomb attack in the final stretch of Strade Bianche had been. He was not, after all, infallible.
Conclusion: MVDP makes mistakes, sometimes (or maybe he doesn’t)
Turning up the Heat
Mathieu makes no secret of the importance of disciplines outside of road cycling, and in what will finally (hopefully) be an Olympic year, the Mountain Biking World Cup took over in May, as MVDP moved away from road racing to focus on off-road.
Despite his dominance in his first race, winning the short course in Albstadt, the cross country race a day later was a different proposition. Mathieu attacked early but faded in the latter stages of the race and was clearly suffering with the heat. Despite riding with his World Cup leader’s jersey open, he was overcome by the conditions and couldn’t stick with the pace. It turns out, he doesn’t fare well in hot weather, something that he’s going to have work on in the run-up to Tokyo if he’s to stay the course with the best of the rest.
Conclusion: despite being one of the toughest guys on the circuit, MVDP has delicate sensibilities
Ripping up the Rulebook
And so to the latest participation for the Agent of Chaos: the Tour de Suisse. His first road race in two months, and it was clear once the opening time trial stage was over, that Mathieu was in good form.
The stage wins were just the start. Following the opening day’s time trial, Mathieu snatched victory on both the second and third stages (wearing white shorts, it must be noted). This meant that heading into day four, he would be wearing the yellow leader’s jersey.
Mathieu is nothing if not a showman and he gleefully exposed the unwritten rule of not allowing serious GC contenders to get away by not only getting away, but taking the yellow leader’s jersey of the Tour de Suisse with him. This, in case you needed the reminder, is the first leader’s jersey he has ever worn in a stage race. Even more surprisingly, on the face of it, the peloton let him.
Of course, it was pantomime. Merely an entertaining charade, and with the serious climbing still ahead, Mathieu thanked his breakaway mates and was subsumed by the bunch, popping straight out the back and clearly intending to phone in the rest of the stage. But wasn’t it fun while it lasted?
Conclusion: MVDP laughs at your so-called ‘rules’
The very next day, Mathieu retired from the race with a ‘mild cold’; whether to preserve his form for the Tour and Olympics, or as a precautionary measure for his health, even the choice of words by the Alpecin-Fenix media team felt like black comedy. For the godlike MVDP to be unable to compete due a cold let alone a mild one strikes at the heart of everything we’ve come to understand about him.
So what is the truth? Is he on another level, a finely tuned machine, or a hothouse plant that needs careful nurture?
Whichever analogy you choose to employ there’s no way around the contrariness of the man: he doesn’t like the heat, or the cold; he doesn’t enjoy climbing, and he doesn’t excel at time trials; he’s simultaneously the fussiest, most specifically designed rider who, on paper, only has a chance on very specific types of stages.
Any race he is involved in is instantly more entertaining as a result of his presence; the rulebook will be shredded, the outcome unpredictable as the other riders around him respond to his presence and he effectively becomes the centre of the universe around which the rest of the race orbits.
On a good day he can obliterate entire fields of the world’s best riders. And he has a lot of good days. Before the Olympics where Mountain Biking is his focus, he targets the Tour de France. Whether he will stay the course is uncertain but there is no doubting his intention – to come away with stage victories at his first grand tour. He will be the Joker in the pack once more, disrupting the GC teams, interrupting the green jersey competition, and providing immense value for money for the fans. No doubt there will be debate when he inevitably steps away from the race to focus on his Olympic ambitions, but for as long as he’s there, he will light up the race in one of myriad possible ways.
So what can we say about this man, to sum him up? To borrow a famous quote, he is ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.’ It’s impossible to pin down quite what makes MVDP what he is, but a few calculated guesses might get us closer:
- He has supreme belief in his own ability
- He does not seem to care for planning or strategy
- He most certainly does not care for doing things the ‘right’ way
So what is the ‘key’ to solving Mathieu van der Poel? At its most simplistic, it is to expect the unexpected. So don’t look away for a second. Do not adjust your sets, cycling fans, because as long as he is involved, we will never, ever be bored; and you do not want to miss a single moment of MVDP magic.