The 24-year-old Dutchman is widely considered one of the brightest talents in the sport but has thus far focused his efforts on cyclo-cross and mountain biking. World champion as a junior, his potential on the road was laid bare last year as he won the elite Dutch national title as well as the Boucles de la Mayenne and two stages of the Arctic Race of Norway.
With his Corendon-Circus team stepping up to Pro Continental level, Van der Poel is being unleashed on the Spring Classics for the first time this year, riding Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday, followed by Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flanders next week and Amstel Gold Race later in the month. Expectations were already high but a storming victory in the Grand Prix de Denain last weekend suggest he could make an instant impact at the top level.
Ahead of Gent-Wevelgem, Cyclingnews caught up with Corendon-Circus director Michel Cornelisse, who explained that the parcours and style of racing in Belgium and Holland are perfectly suited to Van der Poel.
“The Classics will be like a playground for him. For him it’s fun to do these races,” Cornelisse said.
“His biggest quality is that he loves cycling, and that’s why he’s very popular with the public, because he always wants to make the race. In Denain, 70 kilometres before the finish he was on the attack. That’s how he likes to race. He’s not waiting for a sprint and it’s not that you don’t see him all day. He wants to make the race attractive. That’s important for the Classics, and it’s also important for cycling in general, that you have riders like that who make it fun to watch.”
When talking about Van der Poel, the word Cornelisse reaches for repeatedly is ‘unbelievable’. It clearly can’t quite be put into words just how special a talent he is.
“The engine is unbelievable,” he said. “I saw in Spain, when doing a sprint, how quickly he recovers from it. You saw what he did last year at the Dutch championship – he was attacking for the last 40km, they took him back just before the finish and he sprinted like he was so fresh. He recovers so quickly. That’s the best thing about his engine.
“On the bike he’s very special, but when he’s in the group, he’s just like any other guy. He’s normal, he’s friendly, and we laugh a lot. It’s just a normal kid. He’s very friendly. You can ask everyone in Holland and even in Belgium, they love him because he takes five or 10 minutes for everyone.”
The weight of expectation on Van der Poel’s young shoulders is immense - not least after the way his old cyclo-cross rival Wout Van Aert has hit the ground running at the Classics. Cornelisse is understandably keen to take away any sense of pressure for the races ahead.
“It’s the first time he’s doing this. It’s a new experience for him, and the good thing for us is that he’s in good condition, and he can surprise there, but if not, it’s not a big disappointment. We go very open-minded, we do our best, and if we don’t get a result we go home and we’re still smiling,” he said.
“The season is not damaged if we don’t win the Tour of Flanders. In other teams there’s more stress. That can be our difference to make a good result. If you’re in a break in the finale and one is attacking, it’s more for the other teams to take him back than for Mathieu van der Poel, so he can gamble more. But I don’t think he’ll gamble. Like in Denain, he wants to race for 70-80km before the finish.”
Despite the lack of pressure and the references to a ‘learning process’, the team are clearly convinced Van der Poel has what it takes to be competitive in the business end of these races at the first time of asking.
“For sure. He has the condition, he has the legs, and he also wants to be there, in the first group. Normally, when everything goes well, he can be in the front group,” Cornelisse said.
“The only thing that can maybe be a problem is the distance [compared to cyclo-cross], but we don’t think it will be. We did a few good training camps in Spain with a lot of kilometres. Also, a problem can be the number of the car, when he has a problem with the bike and we’re far behind. But if he has no problems, no flat tires, normally he must be there.”
Though he will race Flanders and Amstel, a Paris-Roubaix debut will have to wait until next year or maybe even the year after, with Van der Poel determined to delay a full-time switch to the road until after the mountain bike event at the 2020 Olympics.
As Cornelisse explained, “he likes the punchy climbs where he can accelerate hard and then recover quickly”, but is equally expected to shine on the flatlands of ‘The Hell of the North’. “I think he can do both. It’s unbelievable. You can almost put him everywhere.”
The coming races won’t be make-or-break but they will give us a good idea of what Van der Poel may go on to achieve.
“He’s world class, and we hope the sky is the limit,” Cornelisse said. “Not Team Sky but the sky,” he added with a smile. “He’s unbelievable.”