OKBET CYCLING | Mathieu van der Poel: I will not continue racing beyond the age of 40
Between the first-ever UCI Gravel World Championships and this Friday’s Serenissima Gravel, Mathieu van der Poel was scheduled for a few days off in the Veneto, but the Dutchman decided to instead compete.
Van der Poel had the option on Wednesday morning to sleep in and then take a relaxing ride to a café in Bassano del Grappa, where he might have enjoyed the last rays of summer on the outside patio. He opted out of the Tour of Flanders in favor of racing the Giro del Veneto with Alpecin-Deceuninck. For a guy who appears built to compete, leisure is anathema.
Before the Giro del Veneto, Van der Poel stepped off the team bus on Padova’s beautiful Prato della Valle and commented, “I was here for the week anyhow.” The alternative to training was remaining in the hotel all day, so I said I’d do the race instead.
As soon as Van der Poel arrived, he was the clear favorite to win the Giro del Veneto. In fact, Xandro Meurisse, who won last year, gave up the number one bib for him to wear. This is like to a soccer player giving up the number seven jersey to Cristiano Ronaldo.
Perhaps more than normal, Van der Poel was eager to round off his road season with a victory after his disastrous trip to the World Championships in Australia ended with a charge of common assault after a confrontation with two young girls in his hotel on the day of the race. However, he decided to drop out of the race not long before the finish since he missed the decisive move that included his colleague Jay Vine and went clear right before the local circuits around Vicenza.
For Friday, in Serenissima Gravel, Van der Poel will call an end to a campaign that he said was more stressful than usual on him. He had hoped to make up for lost time by racing all three of the Classics, the Giro d’Italia, and the Tour de France in one season, but a chronic back issue forced him to start his road season only in the middle of March.
The highlights of that run were victory at the Tour of Flanders and the first day of the Giro, but by July, when he abandoned the Tour, Van der Poel’s exhaustion was clear, despite a comeback that included three straight victories before his disastrous journey to Australia.
For me, the mental exhaustion has been more than the physical so far this year. Van der Poel announced as much on Wednesday morning. I really wanted to write The Worlds of Gravel because it’s different, and then these two races were a surprise. If I can have another little respite after this next Friday, I would be quite relieved.
Van van Poel hasn’t settled on the finer points of his 2023 calendar just yet, but he can see the big picture. He missed most of the cyclocross season last year but plans to make up for it this winter by racing on the off-road circuit while focusing on the Classics and the Tour on the road.
“Next year, for sure, I will only do one Grand Tour,” Van der Poel remarked. “I believe this year was a little unusual as well since there was a possibility to grab the pink jersey in the Giro, but otherwise I will do the same as in years past: only 10-15 cyclocross events, then I’ll prepare myself for the Classics season, then take some break, and go for the Tour.
After taking some time off, I’ll figure out when my cyclocross season will begin; for now, I’m guessing late November.
Since Van der Poel has so many obligations on different surfaces, he has to go back and forth between road, cyclocross, mountain bike, and now gravel races. Each season blends into the next, leaving little room for a breather. The back injury he had last winter was the only thing that gave him any time off from competing, but the long recovery procedure hardly qualified as a rest.
Van der Poel acknowledged that he and his contemporaries were unlikely to match the longevity of previous generations due to the ever-increasing demands of the sport, in a week that has seen Vincenzo Nibali, Philippe Gilbert, and Alejandro Valverde call it quits after careers lasting almost two decades or more.
According to an interview I read with Serge Pauwels just last week, he predicts that the current crop of players won’t make it into their mid-thirties (at the very most). According to Van der Poel, “it makes a lot of sense.”
I see it as the next step in cycling’s development. Look at [Juan] Ayuso, too; at 19, he’s already finished third in a Grand Tour. It seems impossible to me to keep this up for 15 years, but that’s just me being selfish. Only I know what it’s like to speak for myself. Given how I now feel, there’s no way I’ll make it to 40.
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