Mathieu van der Poel looks relaxed and sun-tanned as he takes his seat in the bar at the Syncrosfera hotel and performance centre in Spain, where he has been staying to log some dry November kilometres.
The difficult periods and accumulated mental fatigue that occurred in the second half of his 2022 race season are behind him and he is looking ahead to his cyclo-cross campaign and ahead into the new year.
You could sum up Van der Poel's season as one of two halves. Despite delaying his start due to a back problem, victories and podiums arrived straight away in the spring. Yet, the second half of the season wasn't quite as smooth, with an early exit from the Tour de France and a controversy-mired World Championships.
Rewind several months and Van der Poel hit the ground running with a podium place at Milan San Remo, which was followed up with victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen as well as a second win at the Tour of Flanders. The following month brought a stage victory at his debut Giro d'Italia and a three-day stint in the maglia rosa.
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It was surely a magnificent run of race results for any rider, but Van der Poel could only be moderately pleased with his year.
"I think it was a strange season but it was not that bad," Van der Poel tells Cyclingnews.
"It should be a bit better but I'm still quite satisfied, satisfied with some nice victories."
Van der Poel must have wanted more from the second part of his season. The Tour and Worlds disappointments have no doubt added to the motivation to achieve his sizeable goals in 2023, starting with some cyclocross races and the World Championships in Hoogerheide in early Februrary.
"I've trained pretty hard to be at a decent level in cyclocross," he said. "My best period has to come with the Worlds - that's my main focus this season."
Van der Poel is one of the few riders from his or any cycling era to combine and compete at the very top in multiple disciplines. He maintains that riding the road, cyclocross and mountain bike contributes to his mental freshness and he hopes to include more mountain bike racing this year.
"I miss mountain biking a lot during summer, I also think I've had one of my best road seasons while doing mountain biking as well," he said.
"I hope to do some mountain bike races this year and certainly the year after to prepare for the Olympics in Paris."
There's even a mention of a love of the downhill mountain bike he was given by Canyon and the fact he can't ride it more, especially on the downhill track in Livigno where he goes to train.
With his schedule already so packed, it's harder and harder to escape for those moments of fun.
"With the training load going up, you don't fancy taking the downhill bike anymore on a rest day. You just prefer to rest and get ready for training."
Racing against Van Aert and Pogačar
Moving on from the cyclocross season, the Spring Classics are a big motivator for Van der Poel. Already a double winner at Flanders, he could easily join an exclusive triple winners club this spring and it wouldn't be foolish to imagine him holding the outright record for victories by the time his career ends.
"The Classics are always important, especially Flanders. It's really close to my heart and I really love that race," said the Dutchman who lives in the Flanders region of Belgium.
"In the future I hope to win Roubaix, too, but it's not an easy race to do. We will see."
There is also an acknowledgement of just how hard it is to win at WorldTour level. Van der Poel has made things look effortless at times, thrilling fans with his no-tomorrow racing style.
But he suggests that he has had to modify that racing style - which has been criticised by some in the past - in favour of a slightly more conservative approach.
"It's getting more difficult to do silly attacks now because the level is so high. It leads nowhere," Van der Poel told Cyclingnews.
"There was a big change, we started racing sooner. If you throw away your power it's almost impossible to win the race."
Two riders who have clashed with Van der Poel multiple times over the last few seasons are Wout Van Aert and Tadej Pogačar, the former an old cyclocross and Classics foe, the latter making a storming Flanders debut this spring.
They are both rivals, but Van der Poel bears them no ill will and seems to enjoy measuring himself against the best of his generation.
"We always try to beat each other but there is always respect. I try to have respect for every rider," he said.
"The new generation enjoys riding our bikes and trying to win but we are ok with it if it doesn't happen."
It's also hard to speak about the world's biggest races without mentioning the presence of Pogačar and just how much he has already achieved. Van der Poel's philosophical outlook seems to also extend to competing against the seemingly affable Slovenian and he mentions their clash at Flanders last year, where Pogačar nearly broke the Dutchman on the final ascent of the Paterberg.
"I love racing with him, I have a good relationship with him," Van der Poel said.
"It was only good for cycling that he was in De Ronde, he's an exceptional talent."
He agrees that, like himself, Pogačar and Van Aert like to race honestly and explosively, although he explains you first need to work for the condition to be able to do the things on the bike he makes look so effortless.
"Most people forget you need the legs to do it, " Van der Poel said.
"I think everybody wants to ride explosively and attack from far out but first, you need the legs to do it."
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Tom joined the Cyclingnews team in late 2022 as tech writer. Tom has over 10 years experience as a qualified mechanic with 5 or so of those being spent running an independent workshop. Tom has ridden and raced bikes from an early age up to a national level on the road and track and has ridden and competed in most disciplines, even the odd bit of bike polo. Tom is as happy tinkering away in the garage as he is out on the road bike exploring the Worcestershire lanes.
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