Mathieu van der Poel has confirmed he will make his cyclo-cross season debut in the Boxing Day Dendermonde World Cup race in Belgium, where he will immediately clash with eternal rival Wout van Aert and Britain’s Tom Pidcock as the so-called ‘three kings’ of cyclo-cross fight in the intense ‘kerst periode’ - Christmas period, of races.
The three will also clash on December 27 in the Heusden-Zolder Superprestige race and again in the Hulst World Cup on January 2.
While the Diegem Superprestige race on December 29 has been cancelled due to tighter COVID-19 restrictions in Belgium and a ban of spectators attending sporting events, other races will go ahead without spectators.
The Belgian national championships in Middelkerke on January 8 and 9 appear to have been saved after protests and action from the Belgian Cycling Federation. Other races later in January have still to be confirmed, with organisers calling for government financial support and cuts to rider start money to make-up for the loss of spectator fees and earnings from food and drink at the circuits.
The World Championships are scheduled to be held in Fayetteville in the USA at the end of January but the UCI has yet to make a final decision if they will go ahead.
Van der Poel was due to make his cyclo-cross debut last weekend at the Rucphen World Cup in the Netherlands but his winter training has been delayed by a knee injury, while the second half of the 2021 was disrupted by a back injury. He has recovered and recently trained hard at an Alpecin-Fenix get-together in Spain but accepts he may struggle to compete with van Aert and others, despite his dominance of the sport last winter.
“The knee is healing, finally. The problem was the wound still wasn’t closed but now I can do everything with it again, so that’s going in the right direction," Van der Poel said in the countdown to his first race.
"Also the back is holding up at the moment. It’s not how I would like but it’s holding up. I did everything I could to be ready for Sunday."
Van der Poel admitted he suffered a "stupid crash" but one that threatened to derail his entire cyclo-cross season.
"I wasn’t even training, I was just cruising with a friend through the forest and I just lost my front wheel on a slippery part that I didn’t expect and I hit a gravel section first with my knee, so I was wounded pretty bad. I immediately felt that it wasn’t good," he explained.
"After the crash they cleaned it and cut away some dead flesh. I stayed off the bike for four days and when I started training again the first two days were okay but then there was a lot of pain pedalling, so I had to stop again for five or six days."
Van der Poel lost 12 days of important preparation time but he revealed he initially feared it would derail his entire season. He is keen to race again and perhaps use the block of Christmas races to find some form and make- up any deficit on van Aert and Pidcock.
"My cyclo-cross season was already really short, so I would have missed this whole [Christmas] period, then maybe I wouldn’t have done the cyclo-cross season," he admitted. "But now I’ve been back on my bike for a few weeks and the knee is holding up OK, so it’s fine."
Van Aert, with whom Van der Poel has shared the past seven world titles, has made a remarkable return to cyclo-cross in recent weeks, with three wins from three appearances, first blowing the competition away in Boom before winning in Essen and then again at the snowy World Cup round in Val di Sole. He has recently completed a JUmbo-Visma training camp and so could be one even better form.
"Wout is in really good shape. I expected him to immediately and win, but not in the way he did it," Van der Poel said with respect. "That was quite impressive actually, so that was nice to see.
Yet van der Poel is not writing off his own chances.
"Maybe, yeah, [I can compete] for the win. The level behind Wout is something I would normally be able to follow. When I came back into cyclo-cross and could see how far he rode away sometimes, I don’t know if I have that kind of legs already to follow him but I should be able to be in the group behind. Hopefully I can surprise myself."
Cyclingnews will have full race reports and photo galleries of the men’s and women’s races in Dendermonde.
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