Mathieu van der Poel is back on his bike after a long injury lay-off, completing rides both indoors and outdoors in recent days.
The Dutchman may not be doing anything that can be classified as true training for an elite rider, but he has consistently increased the distances over the past week.
Van der Poel has been trying to overcome a back injury that troubled him in the second half of last year and wiped out his cyclo-cross campaign this winter. He was diagnosed with swelling on an intervertebral disc and told that only complete rest would give it a chance to heal fully.
After deciding to pull the plug on the Cyclo-cross Worlds and take an undefined period of rest, Van der Poel lasted almost a month without riding, returning to his home trainer on January 29 for three consecutive days.
He completed a ride of a modest 19.5km on Zwift, before doubling that the following day, and then finishing the block with a ride of 27km on January 31, just after Tom Pidcock claimed the cyclo-cross world title.
Van der Poel then took a day off before grabbing his bike and heading for the open road. He rode for almost two hours, from his home outside Antwerp to the Alpecin-Fenix service course, and then back again. He clocked up 64km in the rain at an average speed of 33km/h.
The next day, he was out again, this time completing a 75km loop alongside QuickStep-AlphaVinyl rider Zdenek Stybar, at an average pace of 31.6km/h.
Van der Poel took Friday off before heading back out on Saturday for his longest ride of the year. He covered 99.8km on a flat trip north across the Dutch border and back, averaging 31.5km/h and a power output of 229 watts.
The indication from the Van der Poel camp was that Van der Poel would only return to full training when completely pain-free, and this week appears crucial in that regard. The signs are encouraging, with indoor and outdoor three-day blocks completed and distances steadily increased. However, any resurgence of pain could set him back even further, with Van der Poel walking a tightrope ahead of the Spring Classics.
The so-called 'Opening Weekend' of the Classics takes place at the end of February but will come too soon for Van der Poel, as is likely the case for Strade Bianche in early March, which he won last year. Instead, he is in a race against time to get back to top form for the main Classics period, including Milan-San Remo on March 18 then the Flemish races through to Tour of Flanders on April 3 and onto a delayed Paris-Roubaix on April 17.
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