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Mathieu van der Poel on Paris-Roubaix debut: I like difficult races

LAGOS PORTUGAL FEBRUARY 19 Mathieu Van Der Poel of The Netherlands and Team AlpecinFenix during the 46th Volta ao Algarve 2020 Stage 1 a 1956km stage from Portimo to Lagos VAlgarve2020 on February 19 2020 in Lagos Portugal Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images
Van der Poel at the Volta ao Algarve in February (Image credit: Getty Images)

Mathieu van der Poel has revealed details of his first recon of the Paris-Roubaix cobbles ahead of his debut at the race in October. The Dutchman will finish his season at the race and tackled many of the decisive cobbled sectors for the first time at the end of June.

Speaking to Het Nieuwsblad, the Alpecin-Fenix leader said that he understood why four-time winner Tom Boonen compared the cobbles to glue and shed some light on the Strava records he set during the three-hour ride.

"That reconnaissance was a lot of fun," Van der Poel said. "I had never ridden those sectors before and now we've done everything after the forest of Wallers, the last hundred kilometres.

"Of course, I'd already heard stories from my teammates, and they're right – the cobblestones are really difficult. Tom Boonen compared them to a strip of glue and now I know what he means. It's really hard to hold your speed on cobbled sectors like that."

Van der Poel, who last year won the 'mini-Paris-Roubaix', the GP Denain, took the Strava KOMs on the the cobbled sectors at Templeuve and Bourghelles à Wannehain, usually a three-star sector in the final 30km of the race.

Eurosport commentator Karsten Kroon was among those to cast doubt on the records, suggesting that Van der Poel had been following a car.

"I can assure you it all went well. If you have a little knowledge, you can see that my wattages matched the speeds," Van der Poel said. "If you understand and look at my wattages on those segments, you wouldn't say such things."

Van der Poel's father Adri, a Roubaix podium finisher in 1986, has said Mathieu can win the race, though the 25-year-old remained cautious when evaluating his chances.

"It's hard to say if you've never done the race," he said. "It seems very difficult to me and I like difficult races." 

Van der Poel is set to race a full schedule up to Paris-Roubaix, with nine one-day Classics (including the four other Monuments) and Tirreno-Adriatico all fitting into a three-month span.

His Alpecin-Fenix team have been due to start again at the Sibiu Tour in Romania on July 23, though that could now change after the Dutch Foreign Ministry marked the country as a 'code orange' for COVID-19. According to Wielerflits, the team will announce their decision on Wednesday.

"The news about Romania hasn't been very positive in the last few days," said Van der Poel. "We are evaluating whether it is wise to go. I don't think I need the race days for the Italian races; at the moment I'm certainly not in top form, but I have a good condition.

"There are a few other things up in the air. The European Championships [to be held on August 24-28 in Plouay, France – Ed.] certainly interest me, but we have not yet made a decision about it."

Van der Poel is looking forward to getting back to racing, though, whether it's in Romania or at Strade Bianche on August 1. It's been four months and counting since he last turned a pedal in anger at the Volta ao Algarve, though the lack of racing doesn't mean he hasn't taken some enjoyment out of a less hectic life in lockdown.

"I'm really looking forward to racing," he said. "Not to one race in particular, but to the racing itself. I missed that tremendously during lockdown, though it was quite a good period, very different from the life I've been used to over the years.

"It was a long time without pressure and that's why I really tried to enjoy it. I often went training with Zdenek Štybar which we'd never done before. And I could be at home, while I've been on the road a lot the past few years."

The prospects of Van der Poel taking to the mountain bike this season now look unlikely after COVID-19 wiped out much of the World Cup calendar and saw the Tokyo Olympics postponed to 2021.

He will be going off-road this year though, returning to cyclo-cross in the winter, though (circumstances permitting) new financial realities have seen Belgian organisers discuss slashing starting fees or cutting them altogether.

It's not a prospect that pleases the Dutchman, who says that, as one of the main stars of the sport, he draws spectators to races.

"We'll see if it really happens because it has been on the table in the past [2017], too. I now read that the start fees would not completely disappear and that organisers would have free reign to spend," Van der Poel said.

"I hope they don't cut it too drastically. Wout van Aert and I like to race 'cross but the starting fees make it financially attractive for us. There's a reason for these: you get paid for what you've done, for the spectators you bring with you.

"Riders who only start to pick up starting money doesn't happen anymore. In a small race you can sometimes get more starting money than prize money at a World Cup race, but I'll race any race at full speed."