On the eve of the first WorldTour race of the year, Mathieu van der Poel opted for a low profile regarding his personal ambitions in the third edition of the UAE Tour (February 21-27).
Two-and-half weeks after he claimed his fourth world title for cyclo-cross on the beach in Ostend, Belgium, Van der Poel made his way to another place renowned for sand to resume racing on the road in the desert of the United Arab Emirates.
His Alpecin-Fenix team brought sprinter Jasper Philipsen to Abu Dhabi despite the competition with the Belgian ‘Opening Weekend’ which is the home turf for the team and van der Poel will do everything he can to help the team secure a stage victory.
“For sure I’m not the fastest sprinter after easy stages so we have better guys in the team for the bunch sprints. I’m here to be part of the sprint train,' van der Poel explained.
"For me it’s the first race of the season. My main goal is to see how my level is with the best climbers. Other than that, I haven’t set any goals for myself yet. I hope to feel better and better every day and help the team as much as possible.”
No wild cards have been allocated for the UAE Tour, but in addition to the 19 WorldTeams, Alpecin-Fenix didn’t miss the opportunity to accept the mandatory invitation they earned for all WorldTour races this year as the best squad of the second division in 2020.
For van der Poel it marks the switch from cyclo-cross bike to his road bike. Mountain biking and a shot at the Olympic title will come later this year.
“The cyclo-cross season was really OK this year,” Van der Poel said during the pre-race press conference on Saturday.
“Without the spectators, it takes away a lot of energy. In cyclo-cross, in particular, we need spectators to make the special atmosphere. It was strange to just get the jersey and drive home with nothing else to do.
“I didn’t do a full cyclo-cross season this winter though. I only did 15 to 20 races, so it was quite OK and ending with the rainbow jersey, it was nice to begin resting.”
He said he looked forward the change of disciplines.
“The road season was always going to start soon,” he continued. “That’s tomorrow. I had a good 10 days of training on the road bike and I hope to enjoy the race here. I’m here mainly to race for the team.
Alpecin-Fenix's big recruit is Philipsen, 22, who didn’t get the chance to take part in this race in his two previous seasons with UAE Team Emirates, but he showed that he’s naturally a strong performer in the earliest part of the season.
In 2019 he took his first pro win at the Santos Tour Down Under and won the points classification of the same event in South Australia last year.
Van der Poel and Philipsen will have separated programmes after a week in the desert, with the Dutchman racing Tirreno-Adriatico and the Belgian at Paris-Nice. They will reunite for the Tour de France, where both will target stages in the first week after the Grand Départ from Brest.
“This year is just really busy,” Van der Poel said of his busy and multi-discipline season.
“With the corona [virus] situation that goes on since last year, the Olympic Games and the Tour de France are a bit too close to each other. I think next year I’ll take it a bit easier, but I’ve no choice this year, I just have to deal with it and give my best at the big goals.”
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