In his quest for the rainbow jersey on the road, Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands) stated earlier this year the he wanted to arrive in Australia for the UCI Road World Championships as the best version of himself.
Asked if he was now at his best, van der Poel responded: “For sure a good version, I wouldn’t say the best maybe, but I think I am ready to fight for the world champion's jersey."
The 27-year-old Dutchman starts Sunday’s 266.9km road race as one of the favourites and arrived at the World Championships off the back of three recent minor road wins after rebuilding his fitness after a disappointing Tour de France.
“It is always nice to win a race. It is not like the level we are going to see on Sunday but it was not an easy race to win,” he said of his recent win at the GP de Wallonie.
“It is never easy but I felt pretty good during those races and for me that was most important. I did everything I wanted to do and now it is just waiting for Sunday.”
The Worlds will be van der Poel’s longest race day since Paris-Roubaix in April where he finished ninth, which was his second lowest result in a one-day race this season. He had victories at Tour of Flanders and Dwars door Vlaanderen victories, and was third at Milan-San Remo.
Although van der Poel’s lead to Worlds has followed a similar pathway to last season where he lined up for three Belgian races before Leuven, he was ‘a shadow of himself’ at the Tour de France in July. It was a far cry from 12 months prior where he enjoyed a memorable debut, winning a stage and a six-day stint in the yellow jersey at the Tour.
Capable of winning in a sprint or attacking for solo victory, Van der Poel holds several aces in his hand for Sunday. And while Mt Pleasant is marked as the place to make the winning move on the final circuits, van der Poel suggested it is one of many dangerous launch pads.
“That’s usually the case when you focus too much on a climb like this. The remainder of the course is pretty hard... It is going to be a difficult one to predict,” he said.
“It’s still quite a long way to the finish line and it’s also some bigger roads to the finish line. If you can make a gap on this climb on the last lap, you are one of the strongest guys. It is possible, but it is not sure you can go to the finish line."
Although his rivalry with Wout van Aert has been billed as a clash of titans, van der Poel believes he and the Belgian are far from the only two to watch. Name checking included Australian Michael Matthews as a rider to watch.
“I think there are a few. Van Aert, everybody knows is amongst the favourites but I also think Matthews," he said. "He is Australian, so I think he is really motivated and he is riding on a high level the last month. I think he is also ready for this."
Another rider in the mix of favourites is two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia), a rider Van der Poel won’t be underestimating.
“He can win on every course, so also this one,” he said of the two-time Tour de France winner, who recently got the better of van Aert in GP de Montréal.
“It is an honest course and the strongest riders will be up there. Pogačar also showed that he is capable of beating Wout in a sprint so after a race like this, it is the guy with the most energy left who wins.”
Although the wet weather in Wollongong is yet to reach the torrential levels of rain of Florence in 2013, the climate is reminiscent of the Italian Worlds where Van der Poel claimed the junior road world title, still his sole success at road Worlds. He has won the elite men's cyclo-cross world championship four times.
Nine years after Florence on Sunday afternoon, Van der Poel could well be the best version of himself. That version is wearing a rainbow jersey with a gold medal around his neck and a bouquet in his hands.
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