Mathieu van der Poel admitted that he is looking forward to taking a break and racing mountain bikes after his intense spring road campaign but he is hungry to go out on a high at Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.
The Dutchman will not ride the Amstel Gold Race or elsewhere after Sunday, with the Tour of Flanders his 15th race in a spring block of racing that started soon after the cyclo-cross season, beginning at the UAE Tour and included Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Le Samyn, Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, the E3 Saxo Bank Classic and then last Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen.
The Alpecin-Fenix rider confirmed he will take a break after the Tour of Flanders, ride the Novo Mesto round of the mountain bike World Cup in mid-May, then train for the Tour de France with the Tour de Suisse his final race. The mountain bike race is his major goal at the Tokyo Olympic Games in the summer.
Van der Poel dominated Strade Bianche with two incredible attacks. He was also strong during Tirreno-Adriatico, winning stage 3 in a sprint and then stage 5 with a long solo attack in the rain. However, he has opted to race little in the cobbled Classics and suffered in the heat on Wednesday.
He shrugged off his poor performance at Dwars door Vlaanderen, blaming the heat but did admit his form may have faded in the countdown to the Tour of Flanders. Yet he made it clear it would be foolish to right off the 2020 winner and one of the most aggressive riders in the sport.
“I think I’ve had a pretty good start to the season but I’m looking forward to doing some mountain biking again,” he said, speaking to the media, including Cyclingnews, in a video pre-race press conference.
“The first part of my road season has been pretty busy. After the cyclo-cross Worlds it all happened pretty quick, so it feels like a long season, even if it was short and intense.”
It could be pre-race tactics but Van der Poel openly admitted he may have peaked in Italy and then burnt some matches with his aggression during Tirreno-Adriatico.
“Maybe so,” he said when asked specifically. “I have the feeling that things are not going so well anymore.
"I didn't have the best foundation when I started the road season. I started pretty quickly after the [Cyclo-cross] World Championships. The condition was also good, I proved that in the Strade Bianche and Tirreno, but I have to admit that it is now a bit less than in those Italian races.
“They asked a lot of me. If you go very deep a few times, without a broad base, it will affect the condition. But we thought I could stretch the good form to Paris-Roubaix."
Asked if it was smart to attack so much in the Tirreno, he said: “Yes, because I won, right?”
Whatever his true condition, Van der Poel will be hunting a second consecutive Tour of Flanders victory after beating Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) in a two-up sprint last year, a photo finish last October.
“The intention is that I go for victory. If that is not the case, we will have to see whether we should approach things differently in the future,” he said.
Crossing swords with Van Aert and Alaphilippe
Van der Poel has not crossed swords with major rivals Van Aert and World Champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) all in the same race since Milan-San Remo; each opting for a different race programme and build-up to the final showdown at the Ronde.
Asked if eternal rival Van Aert had a better build-up and perhaps found a later peak, Van der Poel warned everyone to wait for race day.
“Maybe, we'll see that on Sunday….” he said, admitting that Van Aert is the rider to beat after he won Gent-Wevelgem last Sunday.
"Yes, I think so. Julian Alaphilippe and I started the season very strongly. Julian and I are perhaps now a little less in form, while Wout won Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday. But that doesn't really mean anything. Julian is the world champion and is one of the big rivals too. Wout was dropped on the Tiegemberg in E3. On Sunday at the Tour of Flanders everyone starts from scratch and the best rider always win.
“Štybar is not there, which is a setback for Deceuninck-QuickStep because he was in super shape but that won't change their attacking tactics, they’ll still have irons in the fire.”
Some riders seem envious of the big three hogging the spotlight. Van der Poel sportingly extended the list of contenders for the Tour of Flanders, predicting yet another open and aggressive race.
“I think there are a few riders that are really capable of winning but we’ve also seen lot of moments in recent races where we thought we knew the strength of everyone, but then in the race after, we had to rethink it all again,” he explained, indicating how the recent races have produced hugely entertaining and very unpredictable racing, with often very different winners.
That makes predictions for the Tour of Flanders even more complex, even if Van Aert is the leading favourite amongst the astute Belgian bookmakers.
“It’s difficult to predict who will be best on Sunday. I think there are more favourites than everyone thinks,” Van der Poel suggested.
“For sure Deceuninck-QuickStep are going to try and create a situation like that [of E3 Saxo Bank Classic] but the Ronde is 50 kilometres longer and climbs come at the end, making it easier to drop someone. For sure it’ll be an open race.”
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