Mathieu van der Poel to miss cyclo-cross world championships due to back injury

OTEGEM BELGIUM JANUARY 13 Mathieu Van Der Poel of The Netherlands and AlpecinFenix Team during the 52nd Internationale Betafence CX Otegem 2020 Men Elite UCICX Otegem on January 13 2020 in Otegem Belgium Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images
Mathieu van der Poel (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Mathieu van der Poel has called an end to his cyclo-cross season due to his ongoing back injury and will therefore not defend his world title later this month in the USA. It is unclear if the injury will also affect his road season and spring Classics campaign with Alpecin-Fenix

The Dutchman has been struggling with swelling around a disc vertebrae since the middle of last year and has been advised to rest in order to allow it to heal fully. 

Van der Poel had to delay the start of his 2021-2022 cyclo-cross campaign due to a separate knee injury and only made two appearances before the back injury flared up again and he had to stop racing. 

The past week has been filled with speculation over how long it might take the four-time world champion to recover but on Wednesday he and his team confirmed that the issue was serious enough to wipe out Worlds and the rest of his cyclo-cross ambitions for the winter.

“I can't say much about it, it is what it is. Because of that back pain I haven’t been able to reach my desired level since the Tour. I just want that to be in the past,” Van der Poel said.

“The only remedy turns out to be a longer rest period. It would therefore be foolish to interrupt this period again and still try to make it to the World Championships. We all agree on that. Even though it is very bitter – I have participated in the World CX Championships 10 consecutive times – not being able to defend my title in the States is a real downer.

Van der Poel, who suffered a knee gash in a "stupid" training crash in November, made a late return to cyclo-cross but appeared stronger than expected, riding to second place behind Wout van Aert at the Dendermonde World Cup. However, at Heusden-Zolder the next day he failed to finish, and he was soon diagnosed with swelling on an intervertebral disc in his back. 

His physiotherapist linked the issue to the efforts Van der Poel has made across so many different disciplines over the years, referencing the 'attacks he has committed on his body', and emphasised that only rest would solve it. His father, Adrie van der Poel, also saw urged him to stop for a while, and his Alpecin-Fenix team have reached the same conclusion.  

"We want to optimize the healing process and that is not possible if there is time pressure for a possible participation in the World Championships in Fayetteville. Hence the decision to end his cyclo-cross campaign," read a joint statement from team managers Christoph and Philip Roodhooft.

"Medically there is no news to report. Mathieu respects the prescribed rest, and the injury is monitored by the medical staff and the treating specialist."

The question now is when Van der Poel will be back racing and back to full strength, and it's one that neither he nor his team have an answer for.

With his 'cross season cancelled, attention now turns to the road, with his first major objectives being the spring Classics. However, despite Wednesday's news seemingly signalling an effort to safeguard his spring, there are no guarantees at this point that he will be able to compete at the likes of Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix.

"I'm not worried about the future of my career, but of course it frustrates me now not knowing how long this rest period will last," Van der Poel said. "We'll only set a date and goals if we can do so in a substantiated manner. Until then, I'll do what I can."

The Roodhooft brothers added that they are currently unable to attach a timeframe to the injury and rehabilitation. 

"Speculations about whether it will take weeks or months are groundless. It is currently impossible to predict how fast the swelling will disappear. The treating doctors agree that it will effectively disappear with rest. That's the most important thing, both for Mathieu and for the team.

"He will only start his road season when the injury is over, and when he's been able to prepare for it properly. At this moment it makes no sense to pinpoint a date on it. We will only do that if it does."

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Patrick Fletcher
Deputy Editor

Deputy Editor. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2022 he has been Deputy Editor, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.