When Mathieu van der Poel crashed at the Olympic mountain bike race last July, it was hard not to feel bad for the guy. For years, the talented puncheur had had his eyes on gold at the cross country race, and despite the added complexities of the pandemic, his season had been off to a spectacular start. In January, he claimed a rainbow jersey in cyclocross for the third consecutive year; by March, he had won the opening stage of the UAE Tour, rocketed to victory at Strade Bianche, and crossed the line first on two stages of Tirreno Adriático. He followed all this with a memorable Tour de France debut—winning Stage 2, putting himself in the yellow jersey, and dedicating the emotional victory to his grandfather, legendary French bike racer Raymond Poulidor, who died in 2019.
But in Tokyo, his race almost immediately went wrong—on lap one, he crashed spectacularly on a steep boulder drop. The normally ultra-confident 26-year-old couldn’t hide his embarrassment and disappointment. Between the physical pain and the crushing reality that gold was now out of reach, he withdrew from the race.
That moment raised questions about the rest of his season: Would he be able to rebound quickly, or would he struggle in upcoming races, thanks to the blow to his confidence?
In October, van der Poel proved which path he would take. He lined up for his first Paris-Roubaix, and powering through the wet cobbles, sprinted his heart out against Sonny Colbrelli and Florian Vermeersch to finish in third place.
Van der Poel talked with Bicycling about that famous Olympic crash, the family legacy that has shaped his career, how he handles pressure, and his plans for the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Bicycling: You've been an incredibly successful racer from a very young age. During your first UCI cyclocross season in 2011-12, you entered 26 U19 races and won 24 of them, including the European Championships and the Dutch National Championships. Do you feel pressure to keep winning?
Mathieu van der Poel: Not really. For sure, winning is important, but I think if we really keep focusing on winning, it becomes more difficult. So, I just tried to do everything I can during the weekend and in training to be fit. And, of course, you give 100 percent at each race to try and win, but it's not that if I don't win for a few weeks, that I start panicking or something.
So when you raced the Tour de France for the first time this year, wearing a kit in honor of your grandfather—you did not feel any pressure to win?
No, not really pressure. It was special for sure, and there was a lot of attention, but I didn't really feel a lot of pressure. I just raced like I always did. If it's a Tour de France or a race somewhere near, winning is always the main goal.
You left the Tour de France early this year to focus on the Olympic mountain bike race. But it didn't turn out as you hoped. How did that feel?
Yeah, that was a really shitty moment. This was something I was looking forward to for a couple of years. And I was really ready for it last year, almost two years ago now, when COVID started and the Olympics were postponed. Leaving [the Tour] so early was not a very easy decision. But I think it was needed to be at my top level at the Olympics. And then to crash out in such a stupid way in the race I've been looking forward to for a couple of years... That was a difficult one to take.
Do you think you'll be targeting the mountain bike race again at the Paris Olympics?
Yes, that's the goal.
Both your father and grandfather were very highly ranked pros—your dad, Adrie, won Tour de Flanders, Liege Bastogne Liege, Amstel Gold Race, and the Clasica San Sebastian. Your dad also shows a lot of confidence in you; he told Pez Cycling that you have the potential to win every classic. So, was it always expected that you would be a cyclist?
Not really. I did a lot of sports as a kid; I was really into soccer as well. But I enjoyed cycling at a very young age, and I turned out to be good at it at a young age, and it's always nice to start with wins. So, it just kept growing, and I've been cycling my whole life. It's not that it was meant-to-be... I just enjoyed it as a kid. And the fun grew, and also the goals. And it helps a lot to have a father who knows a lot about cycling, for sure.
How do you think that your family’s legacy has helped shape your cycling career since?
I think, especially in the beginning, it helped me a lot, especially my dad. My granddad, not really, because I didn't see him very often because he lived in France. And I was especially into cyclocross, and my grandfather didn't do a lot of cyclocross, just a little.
But I was really stubborn. I always had my own ideas of how my bike should be and how the tire pressure, for example, should be. And it was not always the same idea my dad had, but I wanted to do my own thing. I learned a lot from my dad, which tires to ride, which pressure and stuff, but pretty soon, I had my own personal feeling, and I was following that above the advice from my dad.
Did that stubbornness ever cause any conflict between you and your dad?
Yes, sometimes for sure. He has the same character as I do, so he is also a bit stubborn. After a while, he knew that I knew what I was doing. And everybody is also different on the bike. So some guys just prefer, for example, a bit higher tire pressure or something. It’s just personal; you have to find your own way.
You race at the top level across the sport and multiple disciplines. However, in the past, you have mentioned that you prefer mountain biking. Do you still feel the same way today?
Yes, I think mountain bike is just my favorite discipline. It still is. But then I have to be near a mountain, somewhere not around here where it's flat. [Ed. note: Van der Poel was interviewed from his home in ’s-Gravenwezel, Belgium.] But yeah, I enjoy mountain biking a lot because you can reach so many beautiful places that you can't reach with the other two bikes. And it’s also the technique—the climbs and descents [are] just something I really love doing.
Do you think you're going to keep doing cyclocross, mountain biking, and road? Are you going to change the strategy or continue to balance those three disciplines?
I'll try to balance it as long as possible, but I already feel it's becoming a bit more difficult with the way that I need my rest as well. So, in the cyclocross season, I will do 10 cyclocross races, which is not a lot. I think three or four years ago, I did 35 or something. So, that's a big difference. But it's especially mountain biking and road cycling that it's difficult to combine because they are both summer sports. The calendars also interfere a little bit, so sometimes it is just difficult to make a good plan.
What do you love about cycling the most?
Being out in nature, just riding the bike...I really enjoy the freedom of it. And like I said, especially on the mountain bike, you can reach so many beautiful places in the mountains and with some breathtaking views. It is too difficult to explain, maybe, to people who don't really enjoy riding their bikes, but it's really nice if you're in shape.
Is there anything that you would like to see change in the sport of cycling?
Yeah, that's a difficult question. It's not a really safe sport. I think we race on public roads, so it's going to be very difficult to reduce all the dangers we have. But I'm not the guy who wants to be the thousandth guy that gives his opinion about something. I think there's a lot of people busy trying to change cycling, hopefully in a positive way. So let the guys whose job is doing this do their job.
At this point, your track record puts you in a position where someday you may be the winningest male cyclist ever. Is that something you're aiming for? What do you want your legacy in cycling to be?
Well, it's not really something that keeps me busy. But if I had to say one thing I really want to achieve, and that would be cool, it is becoming world champion in the three disciplines. So cyclocross, mountain biking, road cycling. It's not going to be easy, for sure. But that's something that's a dream of mine.