His rivals have gotten off to a rapid start in the 2022 road season, but Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) is on the chase and training to make his comeback from a back injury this month, with a start at the Tour of Flanders increasingly likely.
The organisers of the Tour of Flanders and Dwars door Vlaanderen, Flanders Classics, announced on Thursday that Van der Poel would be racing these events, and there have been rumours that he will start at Coppi e Bartali later this month, but Alpecin-Fenix refused to confirm any race dates when contacted by Cyclingnews.
Coppi e Bartali runs from March 22-26, while Dwars door Vlaanderen takes place on March 30 on the Wednesday before Sunday's Tour of Flanders.
Van der Poel is currently training near Denia in Spain, where he has been ramping up the intensity. Having been off the bike for more than a month when his back pain flared up in his second cyclo-cross race in December, the 27-year-old winner of Tour of Flanders in 2020 has been taking a very cautious approach to his rehabilitation.
Having been struggling with pain since last May, Van der Poel was finally diagnosed with swelling on a intervertebral disc that would only heal with complete rest. While he was laid off for the entire month of January, Van der Poel underwent minor knee surgery to remove scar tissue. His team and father Adrie van der Poel insisted that he would not resume training until he had no pain in his back.
That day came in early February, when Van der Poel gingerly got back on first a home trainer and then out on the roads for short rides. He headed to Spain to build his endurance, clocking a huge number of kilometres in February.
In recent weeks, Van der Poel has been adding more intensity, with his latest ride on Thursday entitled "40-20 🤮" on Strava. The 133.7km route included over 2000m of climbing and Van der Poel set numerous personal best times and the fastest time up the 'Cami de Fanadix' - a 2:30 effort at 466 watts.
Van der Poel has been burned by premature returns over the past year. His back problems cropped up in a hectic first half of 2021, after he took second in his Tour of Flanders defense to Kasper Asgreen, then turned around to race mountain bike World Cups in preparation for the Olympics. Two weeks later, he was back on the road for Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France, where he wore the maillot jaune for six days before departing for Tokyo.
After crashing out of the cross country event spectacularly on the first lap at a rocky drop-off, Van der Poel had to cut a training camp short due to back pain. He missed the MTB Worlds and pulled out of the Benelux Tour but fought his way back for Paris-Roubaix, where he finished third. Two days into his 'cross season, the back problems flared again.
Meanwhile, long-time rival Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) has hardly put a foot wrong. He had his first non-podium finish of the season at Paris-Nice on Thursday, letting go of the peloton on an aggressive mountain stage and giving up the lead to teammate Primož Roglič one day after winning the stage 4 time trial. Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) also added his name to the Flanders favourites list with a spectacular win in Strade Bianche.
Alpecin-Fenix say they will announce Van der Poel's schedule when it is final. But as Van der Poel wrote on Instagram last month, 'patience is key'. This could apply to the race organisers and fans, as well.
Thank you for reading 5 articles this month*
Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
after your trial you will be billed £4.99 $7.99 €5.99 per month, cancel anytime. Or sign up for one year for just £49 $79 €59
Join now for unlimited access
Try your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Deputy Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. A former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks.