With the UCI releasing the World Cup Mountain Biking calendar, Alpecin-Deceuninck's planning team and the KNWU are gradually gearing up for the challenge of scheduling Mathieu van der Poel's approach to 2024. The Dutchman has been harboring Olympic dreams for several years, and the upcoming year offers a chance to realize them. IDLProCycling.com extensively discussed the Paris puzzle with Dutch off-road team coach, Gerben de Knegt!
In the previous Tokyo Olympics, the Dutch cyclist distinctly chose mountain biking, where an infamous plank caused a setback. Towards 2024, he's faced with a decision: he could potentially achieve Olympic success both in mountain biking and road cycling. Both coaches, De Knegt and Koos Moerenhout, are understandably keen on having him. And this doesn't even take into account the viewpoint of Alpecin-Deceuninck, who would surely want their star athlete in action in their pivotal races. For cycling enthusiasts, the surplus of choices is clear.
Offroad national team coach De Knegt has obviously known his protegé well for several years from the field and mountain bike. We spoke with him after the test event for the Olymic Games in Paris about the puzzle Van der Poel has to put together toward 2024, although the Dutch selector was able to aptly articulate his top rider's choice problems in one sentence: "The basis is him indicating what he wants to do. But that's typical Mathieu; he may have one perspective now and a completely different one later."
"The Tour, however, is a crucial aspect of the preparation," believes De Knegt. Next year's Tour spans from June 29 to July 21, while the Olympic road race - believed to be an excellent match for the Dutchman's strengths - is set for August 3. The mountain bike race is on July 29. Combining both disciplines effectively is quite a challenge. "He genuinely has a shot at winning the road race, which is a week after the mountain biking event, and that's just a week after the Tour," points out De Knegt.
"That's a conundrum. Whether it's feasible depends on the preparation. If he partakes in the Tour and then two weeks later the road race, it's almost a carbon copy of this year's World Championship preparation," observes De Knegt. "I get that, but transitioning from the Tour to mountain biking in just two, three days is tough. It's not impossible, but it is very challenging."
National coach De Knegt on Van der Poel's ever-challenging puzzle
De Knegt acknowledges the dilemmas, "I have my ideas about his preparation, but there are complexities. He also plays a part in bringing the green jersey to Paris in the Tour. So, it's a mix of everything. They're luxury problems, as one might say." De Knegt hopes mountain biking remains part of the picture, adding, "After the test event, he did say he needed more mountain biking. That made me happy, but it leads to further questions: when and how will that fit in with road cycling?"
De Knegt appreciates the considerations of Van der Poel's team at Alpecin-Deceuninck. "I express my views, and they value them. However, ultimately, the decision is his. And if Alpecin-Deceuninck suggests he needs to race the Tour, who am I to counter that? There are interests on all fronts," states the always-realistic coach.
"It's always a challenging puzzle, but I do think he needs to participate in some mountain biking races to get into the rhythm," explains the coach, pointing towards the possible ultimate prize: gold at the Paris Olympics. Potential World Cup options could be the double-header in Brazil (just after the spring, on the weekend of the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège) or the European races in Nove Mesto (26 May), Val di Sole (16 June), and Crans Montana (23 June). However, the last two are close to the Tour de France dates.
De Knegt has an apt as well as a striking metaphor at hand to explain the luxury problems of someone with the talent of Van der Poel. "I don't think Mathieu is biting off more than he can chew, but he does need to distribute his efforts correctly. A few years ago, it was easier for him to 'simply' switch bikes, but now, of course, he's not twenty anymore. And he can't just show up 'low profile' somewhere," he points out.
"There are many people who cannot appreciate Van der Poel's mountain bike races"
It bothers De Knegt when outsiders suggest that he should abandon mountain biking. "Many people do not appreciate his mountain biking achievements over the past years. He has won World Cup races, been a European champion, earned World Championship medals, and thus has a lot of experience in mountain biking. I shouldn't read everything, but sometimes I see foolish comments suggesting he should quit. But well, if the guy enjoys it...," he counters the critics.
Furthermore, the former cyclocross rider argues that the level of the sport is consistently underestimated. "Global mountain biking is genuinely at a very high level. I dare say that mountain biking is underrated, but road cycling is definitely overrated. If you're a good mountain biker, nine times out of ten, you can hold your own on the road. That's why they are in demand," concludes De Knegt, who has once again proved himself right over the past few days with Milan Vader's Tour of Guangxi victory.