After winning his second straight junior men's cyclo-cross world championship on an icy course in Louisville, Kentucky, this past February, and capping off an undefeated season, Mathieu van der Poel was asked about his expectations as he transitioned to the U23 ranks for the winter of 2013-2014. With typical modesty and aplomb Van der Poel stated he hoped to crack the top-10 but what the 'cross world has seen thus far in only a handful of U23 events has been continued confirmation of his seemingly bottomless trough of talent.
For good measure, two weeks prior to his first U23 'cross race of the season, Van der Poel put a fitting punctuation mark on his junior road racing career with a world championship in Florence, Italy on September 28. The 18-year-old Dutchman then quickly transitioned to cyclo-cross as he proceeded to win the U23 event at the opening round of the bpost Bank Trophy in Ronse, Belgium, on October 13.
One week later Van der Poel lined up for his World Cup debut on home turf in Valkenburg. On a course designed by his father Adri, himself a 'cross world champion and winner of Monuments such as Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Flanders on the road, Mathieu proceeded to advance through the field from a start several rows back to finish on the podium in third in his first U23 World Cup. Van der Poel was just one second shy of runner-up Wout Van Aert and 21 seconds in arrears of Belgian winner Michael Vanthourenhout.
Six days later, Van der Poel proved a quick study and won round two of the U23 World Cup in Tabor, Czech Republic, using his prodigious bike handling skills to dispatch of Belgium's Gianni Vermeersch on the final lap to win alone by three seconds. Not since December, 2004, when Niels Albert won the U23 'cross World Cup round in Hofstade, Belgium, has a first year U23 rider won a World Cup event. But Van der Poel went one better than Albert as the Dutchman not only won a World Cup round but donned the leader's jersey for the series.
"Double victory in Tabor, 2nd round of the World Cup and I'm the new World Cup leader. Whole lot easier to start on 1st row. Tomorrow Ruddervoorde!" said Van der Poel on Twitter.
Picking up where he left off, Van der Poel again rode away from the U23 field 24 hours later today in Ruddervoorde, Belgium, to win the opening round of the Superprestige series. Van der Poel won by 52 seconds ahead of Vanthourenthout, last Sunday's U23 World Cup victor.
"I was on the second row and today had a good start," said Van der Poel following his Superprestige win. "On the technical sections I was better than the competition and so I came into the lead quite early. I then adopted a pace that I knew others would have to take risks if they wanted to come back. Only in the sand was I at a disadvantage."
Van der Poel spoke of the challenges he faces as he's moved up in age category.
"The big difference is that at the top the competition is deeper as well as greater [than the junior ranks]. It is evident to win I can not afford to make any more mistakes.
"The races themselves are therefore a lot more fun," said Van der Poel.