Mathieu van der Poel is hoping to end his cyclocross season on a high with a fifth world title and so defeat of his eternal rival, Wout Van Aert, at the Cyclocross World Championships on Sunday.
The Dutchman has endured a contrasting winter. He won six of the 14 races on his schedule but was also troubled by back pain yet again and was beaten on a number of occasions by van Aert.
However, the World Championships were always the big cyclocross goal of the season, and Van der Poel feels he is now at his best. He is hoping to celebrate a famous victory on Sunday before focusing on his 2023 road racing campaign.
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“This is what I’ve worked for,” Van der Poel told Het Nieuwsblad in a final interview before travelling from his home in northern Belgium across the border to Hoogerheide in southern Holland.
“I tried to organise my winter a little differently because the World Championships was marked in red from the very start. I don't want to be at my peak all year round. Now, I want to work more in periods.
“The road has become more important in recent years, but in winter, the World Championships are the most important thing. Indeed, if they weren't there, I wouldn't have much to look for in the cross, except that it's fun to do.”
Van der Poel won in Gevere on December 26 but then suffered a string of defeats to Van Aert before turning the tables on his Belgian rival in Herentals. However, his back pain flared up again in the Koksijde sand. Fortunately, a road training camp with Alpecin-Deceuninck gave him time to recover, and he managed to beat Van Aert in Benidorm two weeks ago with a late, audacious pass.
Van Aert has enjoyed a more consistent and more successful cyclocross campaign, but Van der Poel is optimistic about his chances.
Rain on Saturday is expected to make the Hoogerheide course a little slower, but it should remain mud-free and so fast. The high barriers are also in Van der Poel’s favour and could tip the balance as he and Van Aert fight for yet another rainbow jersey.
“Not winning is not a good feeling,” Van der Poel said, admitting the World Championships will make or break his winter.
“The Christmas period was good, but I had expected a little more from it. I didn't reach the level I had in mind, but if you win the World Championships, nothing else matters.
“The problems with my back were not fun, but apart from that, I had a lot of fun during the winter. It was fun going into that duel (win van Aert during the holiday races). You saw that the cross was really alive.”
Van der Poel arrived in Hoogerheide late on Friday but is not expected to train on the Hoogerheide course or make equipment choices until Sunday morning when the conditions are finalised.
The World Championship course was designed by Van der Poel’s father , Adrie, who originates from Hoogerheide, but Mathieu denied that favours him, dismissing reports of home turf favouritism.
However, Hoogerheide remains a special place for Van der Poel and his family, but he insisted he will not be emotional or feel any extra pressure.
“I don’t really get very nervous anymore, even though I can't deny that Hoogerheide is somewhere special,” he said.
“I always like to go to Hoogerheide. My grandmother used to live close to the course. I think it's even more special for our Dad because he grew up there, and he was able to organise another World Championships. He’s proud of that.”
Van der Poel has won cyclocross world titles in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Switzerland and Belgium but never in the Netherlands in front of the home nation.
He failed to win the world title in the Netherlands as an under-23 rider in 2014 and again as an elite rider in 2018. He was sick nine years ago and then was beaten by Van Aert and Michael Vanthourenhout in the mud in 2018.
However, since then, Van der Poel has gone on to dominate the World Championships and has emerged as one of the best Classics riders in the peloton, winning the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold Race and stages at the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and other races.
He and Van Aert have clashed in seven different elite Cyclocross World Championships, with Van der Poel winning four titles to Van Aert’s three.
“The last World Championships I lost was five years ago now, and I don't think I'm the same rider as I was back then,” van der Poel pointed out with confidence.
“I also have nice memories of Hoogerheide. It is also the place where I take my first title as Dutch road champion.”
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