Mathieu van der Poel made his much-anticipated 2020 road debut at the Volta ao Algarve last week, but any onlookers hoping for a spectacular display to add to his growing highlight reel would have left the race disappointed.
The Alpecin-Fenix rider maintained from the start that the five-day race was an exercise in preparation for upcoming goals, and so it played out. Van der Poel enjoyed a low-key race, working for teammates on occasion and putting in a solid ride on the Alto da Fóia summit finish on stage 2.
The Volta ao Algarve was always likely to be a quieter race for Van der Poel. It was his first action since the end of his cyclo-cross season, which was another phenomenally successful campaign, with 24 wins in 25 races, including World and European titles. With a full Classics season ahead, starting next weekend at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Van der Poel's focus in Portugal was on getting the miles in for the spring.
"This was a preparation race, something I needed for what is to come," the Dutchman told Belga News Agency at the conclusion of the final stage, a 20km time trial in Lagoa. "I'll take it easy this week and then I want to be up there competing for victory at Omloop."
Last year, Van der Poel headed into the Classics with the four-day Tour of Antalya – and a stage win – in his legs. This time around, he'll take part in his fullest spring season yet, riding one-day races from Omloop to La Flèche Wallonne with the Volta a Catalunya among them.
Plenty of race days and training of time to hit top form, then, and he's clearly not worried about being able to do so quickly. Earlier in the week, the 25-year-old told Wielerflits that, in terms of his upcoming goals, a stage victory in Algarve wouldn't have meant much, though he performed strongly on the Alto da Foia on stage 2.
The climb was the queen stage of the race, and Van der Poel hung in with the lead climber's group until the midway point. Two days later, on the shorter but steeper climb of the Alto do Malhão, he was out of the picture altogether.
"I surprised myself with the ride on Thursday," he told Belga. "I stayed with the front group for a long time. On Saturday it was a little too steep. I already knew that after the first time over and didn't push it.
"When you see that it's all climbers in the top ten, you know. I wasn't disappointed afterwards. I'm just a little bit too heavy for a climb like that, even when I'm in top form."
Van der Poel headed to Algarve off the back of a ski holiday and block of training, so he wasn't surprised to be in the shape he was during the week.
"It wasn't possible when you saw what preparation I had compared to the other riders at the start. After my ski holiday I trained for a week so I couldn't be in top form. I didn't have to be."
He does, however, plan to be up front and in contention at Omloop on Saturday. For his first one-day race of 2020, he'll be joined by Algarve mountain classification winner Dries De Bondt, as well as five new signings – Kristian Sbaragli, Scott Thwaites, Petr Vakoč, Senne Leysen and Otto Vergaerde.
The strength of Alpecin-Fenix's new-look Classics squad remains to be seen, but as everybody saw last year, Van der Poel is more than capable of winning races (GP Denain, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold Race) regardless of team support.
"Of course, I'm going to compete at the front, to win," Van der Poel said about Omloop. "A week can make a big difference to me. Algarve has really pleased me; it went better than expected.
"I'll do one long training ride and then keep busy, then I'll be ok on Saturday. I don't plan a reconnaissance for the time being. Considering the weather forecast, maybe that's a good thing too."
Mathieu van der Poel's 2020 schedule
February 29: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
March 7: Strade Bianche
March 21: Milan-San Remo
March 23-29: Volta a Catalunya
April 1: Dwars door Vlaanderen
April 5: Tour of Flanders
April 12: Paris-Roubaix
April 15: Brabantse Pijl
April 19: Amstel Gold Race
April 22: La Flèche Wallonne
May 23-24: UCI XC MTB World Cup, Nové Mesto
June 20-21: UCI XC MTB World Cup, Andorra
June 28: UCI XC MTB World Championships, Albstadt
July 27: Olympic Games XC MTB, Tokyo