Mathieu van der Poel is widely considered as one of the favourites to win the elite men's road race at the UCI Road World Championships on Sunday but said he would be happy with a medal or top-10 finish after his preparation was derailed by a back injury.
Van der Poel has been fighting back pain since mixing road racing and mountain biking ahead of the Olympic Games, and it was only made worse by his dramatic crash in the Tokyo cross-country event. However, the Dutch rider says he's done everything to be ready for Sunday's 268km race in Flanders.
"I felt pretty good after my last races. I’m happy with the progress I’ve made in the past few weeks," Van der Poel said in an interview with Alpecin-Fenix Cycling Team. "The sessions at my physiotherapist have helped to release tension, which I’m happy about. I trained a lot to strengthen the back muscles as much as possible. It’s been a slow process, but at least there is progress and that’s satisfying."
The 26-year-old returned after Tokyo at the Antwerp Port Epic, where he claimed victory ahead of compatriot Taco van der Hoorn, then raced to a top 10 in the Primus Classic and finished Gooikse Pijl along with longer training sessions to be ready for Worlds.
Compared with the spring, when Van der Poel won Strade Bianche and two stages of Tirreno-Adriatico before finishing second in Tour of Flanders, he said his level is not quite the same.
"The situation is different now, but of course I prepared for the Worlds the best I could, given the circumstances. I feel I’m ready for it though, otherwise I wouldn’t be at the start."
The 268.3km route is peppered with climbs, some of them the same as those used in Brabantse Pijl, a race Van der Poel won in 2019. He says the climbs are not as hard as Tour of Flanders but he still expects a grueling race.
"I think it will be a grueling race and the one with the best legs and shape on the local circuit will win. The distance, almost 270 kilometres, and the number of climbs will take their toll. On the Flandrien circuit there are six short, punchy climbs, including the Smeysberg and the cobbled Moskesstraat. On the local circuit in Leuven there are four hills, of which Wijnpers is the steepest. But the Flandrien circuit will be tougher, for sure.
"I must say I really like racing in this region. The roads are largely the same as in the Brabantse Pijl. I like it! However, the hills in the Ronde suit me a bit better I think, the cobbled climbs like Koppenberg or Oude Kwaremont. Cobbled climbs aren’t really the same as asphalt climbs. The hills on the World Championships course aren’t new to me, but they will surely hurt after a while because of the distance."
Van der Poel tipped his cyclo-cross nemesis Wout van Aert (Belgium) as the main contender to win the title, saying, "He would be a good world champion. I also expect a lot of the French team with defending World Champion [Julian] Alaphilippe, and of Italy and Denmark. They have the strongest teams I think."
As for his own ambitions, Van der Poel remained realistic.
"I’m someone who always aims for the best possible result, a victory. Depending on how the race goes I think I can also be happy with a medal or a top ten, also because of my preparations for the race."
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