Mathieu Van der Poel is pure cycling pedigree. The son of the 1986 Tour of Flanders winner and 1996 world cyclocross champion, Adri Van der Poel, he is also the grandson of Tour de France legend Raymond Poulidor. It comes perhaps as no surprise that he has been a world-beater since an early age, twice winning the world ’cross title as a junior. But he really stunned the world in 2015 when as an under-23 rider, he moved into the elite category and won the world title at age 20. But while the Dutch phenom is focused on his off-road career for the moment, he reveals in this interview that he fully expects to move to the road in years to come.

ABOVE: December 2015 Cyclocross World Cup Round 4 (Namur, Belgium). Image: Yuzuru Sunada

You were basically born into cycling. What was it like growing up with a father like Adri? That’s true. Like a lot of kids, I did different sports growing up, especially football [soccer]. But cycling was always there and eventually I had to choose and I chose cycling. I was actually good in both sports…but cycling spoke to me more. Soccer is a team sport and I really prefer individual sports. Plus, we were always talking about cycling in the house and cyclists were always stopping by. In the beginning, Adri really helped me a lot. He taught me a lot of the smaller details that are so crucial in cyclocross. Things like tire-pressure. I mean that is something that is always changing depending on the terrain you are racing on on any given day. But I can also be kind of stubborn and I like to do things myself, so today I am trying to go my own way. In addition, the sport has changed a lot since my father’s epoch; the bikes are just different, with disc brakes et cetera. It’s a very different machine today.

Words: James Startt
Images: Yuzuru Sunada

Is your preference for individual sports one of the reasons why you have focused so much on cyclocross rather than road racing? Yeah, it is. Even though road racing is an individual sport on paper, at the highest level it is much more of a team sport, especially if you want to win a grand tour or a classic. I really like the individual aspect of cyclocross. You don’t really need teammates. That, and the fact that the strongest rider almost always wins in cyclocross. That’s just very satisfying to me. I just find it more fun. I’ve had good results on the road as well, but for now I really want to focus on cyclocross. I don’t see focusing on cyclocross for my entire career, so I really want to focus on it for the next couple of years. I can switch to the road later. In that way, I am actually the opposite of my father. Adri really focused on cyclocross at the end of his career. I’m focusing on it at the beginning!

You stunned everyone in 2015 by winning the world elite ’cross title. You were barely 20 years old and could easily have won the under-23 title, but in the end you lined up for the elite race and beat the best in the world. Were you surprised by your victory? Well, along with Wout Van Aert, we won pretty much all the cyclocross races at the under-23 level, and already, during the season, we raced well against the professionals, so we decided to go for the elite race. It was a risk, yes, but also a challenge. And to be the elite world champion was something very special, very different, as an espoir.

September 2013 Road World Championships (Toscana, Italy). Junior Men. Image: Yuzuru Sunada

What is the biggest difference for you between cyclocross and the road? I would say the power. Cyclocross is one hour full gas, whereas on the road it is progressive. On the road, the last hour is intense but it is different because you are already tired from several hours of racing. You really can’t compare them.

What makes a great ’cross racer? Oh, I would say the combination of power and bike handling. The conditions change all the time. One week we are racing in the mud, the next in the sand. That’s what I like about it. It’s always different and a good cyclocross racer knows how to adapt to all conditions.

How much time do you spend training on a ’cross bike. Do you ride your road bike for conditioning sometimes? In the winter I am always on my cyclocross bike. Most of the time I ride on the road. We only actually have one cyclocross training during the week in the woods. But even on the road, we ride our ’cross bikes; we just put on the road wheels. Our cyclocross bikes are set up a bit differently than the road bikes. We generally ride a shorter length on the top tube and stem, more like a mountain bike. And it is important to ride that position all winter long.

If you do focus on the road one day, what kind of a rider can you be? Oh, that’s hard to say, because until you have raced at the highest level you just don’t know. I’m a pretty good time trialist and a good climber, but until you are racing with the pros you can’t really say.

Well, what is the race you would most like to win? Oh that’s easy: Paris-Roubaix. It’s the best race for any cyclocross rider that moves to the road.

From issue 60. Buy it here.