Even Mathieu van der Poel is astounded by his winning streak: 'It’s definitely not normal'

Rivals and the man himself in awe of the world champion’s incredible run of form

Cycling is a competitive sport. Athletes duel against one another, fight to overcome their rivals, and race to win. But on an overcast April Sunday in northern France, across the dusty and muddy cobbles that make up the mythical Paris-Roubaix, Mathieu van der Poel existed in his own competition, defending his Roubaix crown from 12 months ago, playing in his own private league that no-one else has access to. He pedals, attacks, and wins in a manner that not one single rival can match.

And the Dutchman knows it. “I feel really good for a long time now,” he said, referencing an opening three months of the season that has brought with it his sixth cyclo-cross world title and three Classics triumphs – including a rarely-done and much-sought-after Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix double. “Today was for sure my best day so far this Classics season. It’s really incredible.”

What Van der Poel is doing right now, gliding across sectors of hard stones and smooth asphalt with the grace and panache of legends before him, is reminiscent of what Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck and Tom Boonen did in decades gone by. Van der Poel possesses that same flamboyance and execution that exudes greatness. “It’s definitely not normal,” the world champion acknowledged. “I could only dream of this when I was a kid, and with this jersey, it makes it even more special. I could never have imagined all of these races I am winning now. I was focused only on cyclo-cross when I was younger. It’s just amazing.” 

Image by Pauline Ballet/ASO

At the supposed peak of his career, aged 29, he’s operating at a standing that he has only reached once before – eight months ago in Scotland when he claimed the road World Championship title. “This comes close to my Glasgow level,” he said. “I tried to enjoy the last part of the race today, which I couldn’t do in Flanders because I was really on my limit there. Today, I felt better in the final, and I tried to enjoy it because I know it’s a special moment that won’t last forever.”

His competitors certainly hope that’s the case, chief among them his closest challenger at the moment, Mads Pedersen. “Mathieu was in a different league today, and the way he was racing was really impressive,” Pedersen, third on the day, said, tipping his hat to a man he has consistently remarked as being superior to everyone else in the Classics. 

Image by Pauline Ballet/ASO

The rest of the peloton are just as in awe, scratching their collective heads to figure out a way to stop him from scooping up all of the biggest prizes. “It’s a bit daunting how good he is, but it’s special to race someone of that calibre, to see how they do it in the race and to really learn from him,” Bora-Hansgrohe’s Sam Welsford said. “It’s pretty special to be in the same generation as someone like him, winning Roubaix and Flanders in the rainbow jersey. We’re all pretty impressed, hopefully, one day us mortals will be able to take it to him.”

One day perhaps, but it doesn’t look like any day soon. Next week he races Amstel Gold, a race that in 2019 he scored his breakthrough win, delivering a masterclass in brute force and tactical astuteness. And then there’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège; win that, and he’ll have scooped four of the five Monuments. “It’s a pity a few contenders won’t be there [at Amstel and Liège] and I know I will need my Glasgow level to win. But I will try, see how far I can get; they are races that you never know what can happen.”

The whole sport can give a pretty informed guess of what can and probably will happen: the man from Alpecin-Deceuninck dressed in a rainbow jersey will win yet again. “It is clear,” his teammate Jasper Philipsen, second at Roubaix once again said, “that this guy is really outstanding.”

*Cover image by James Startt

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