Are Wout van Aert & Mathieu van der Poel's Overloaded Racing Schedules Hurting Their Careers?

Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel could be headed towards burnout by overloading their racing schedules in 2021

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With Wout van Aert and Mathieu Van Der Poel continuing the best rivalry in cycling this weekend at the Namur World Cup, I thought it would be a great time to be an extreme downer by mentioning how I think the continuation of this rivalry into ‘cross season is going to be detrimental to the health of their cycling careers in the longterm.

I know, I know, I can already see the hatemail from the Slow Ride Podcast and CXHAIRS crews coming in already. Of course, Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel are the two best Cyclocross racers in the history of the sport and should be racing the sport they love this season.

But, please hear me out.

If these two riders are truly serious about becoming the two dominant road cyclists of their generation, their current double-sport (and in the case of van der Poel, triple) schedule seems destined to disrupt both riders’ careers by causing extreme mental and physical burnout.

With both fresh off an extraordinarily compact and intense road racing season, I was surprised to see them so willing to jump back into Cyclocross racing after just two months since their last road race. The physical and mental toll their compressed season put them under, along with the upcoming Classics season kicking off in just two months means they are really pushing the boundaries of what their bodies can handle and possibly putting themselves on track for extreme overextension.

For the Love of the Game

Obviously, both riders love the sport of Cyclocross and in their minds, they will have to be training during this time, so why not spend it racing a fun sport?

But, in reality, endurance athletes can’t spend all their time in a constant state of racing and need to take time away from racing to avoid falling into a hopelessly overtrained state. There is an extremely long list of riders who raced for a short time at the top of multiple cycling disciplines, only to have their form fall off a cliff and then struggle to capture the same level. Marianne Vos and Pauline Ferrand-Prévot are both currently great riders, but neither has recaptured the brilliance they possessed before suffering burnout while attempting to ride at a world-class level in three separate cycling disciplines (road, CX and MTB).

While they both plan to race Cyclocross this season, the two riders are approaching it with very different expectations. For example, Van Aert seems to be approaching the CX season with a laid-back approach, and as far as I can tell, only appears to be planning to start a handful of races and isn’t attempting to seriously contend for a World Championship. This decision is made easier by his poor start position, which is critically important in CX, due to missing last cyclocross season with an injury. I personally think the best thing for Van Aert’s 2021 road season would be resting through December and then building up his fitness through training in January, not taking the mental and physical energy to travel to cold and grueling Cyclocross races.

There is an argument to be made that the ‘Cross racing fuels his passion for road cycling, and the variety of training and racing can actually help him later in the year. But most importantly, Van Aert is on a massively successful road team, Jumbo-Visma, who forces him to temper these offseason activities and likely requires him to run these off-season races by them. And critically, unlike van der Poel’s Alpecin-Fenix team, they have a deep enough bench that allows him to take blocks of rest during the height of the road season.

Meanwhile, van der Poel seems to be making unilateral decisions about his racing calendar while having far more serious ambitions for this Cyclocross season. He has stated that his goal is to win the Cyclocross World Championships, which is on January 31st, head immediately into the one-day road Classics in March/April, the Tour de France in July, and then the Olympic Mountain bike event in Tokyo just a week later.

This is a truly absurd schedule and I can’t believe his behind-the-scenes management team has signed off on considering he will also have to race mountain bike WorldCup races throughout his road season to build up a stash of UCI points. This means he will be attempting to race three separate disciplines at a world-class level and will need to juggle his mountain bike racing schedule during a busy and demanding road season. If Van Aert is running a yellow light by partaking in a few ‘Cross races. van der Poel is heading straight through a flashing red.

This schedule is clearly insane and will undoubtedly lead to disappointing results across all three disciplines, but the most concerning thing about this juggling act is that van der Poel has been saying in recent weeks that he is actually lighter now than he was during the road cycling season. This is incredibly concerning since the winter should be a time when road cyclists gain a few kilos to allow their bodies a rest and recuperate from carrying such a small amount of body fat during the season. He can likely sustain burning the candles from both ends for a few years, but as he enters his late-20s, this full-court press schedule is going to have serious negative effects on his racing performance. Also, while he has raced all three disciplines in the past, he has never actually raced a full road schedule with a grand tour, which he will presumably have to do in 2021 due to his Alpecin-Fenix team invited to the Tour de France.

I will admit that attempting this packed and varied schedule is objectively cool. But that speaks to my main issue with van der Poel. I sometimes wonder if he chases the “cool” instead of truly thinking through the best thing for his sporting future (i.e. riding on a small team where he carries an extremely large burden, trying to ride one-handed with a flat tire at the 2019 Tour of Flanders, racing mountain bikes instead of focusing on the road and Cyclocross, etc.)

In reality, this attempt is likely to end with disappointing results in all three disciplines and it is very possible to cause extreme physical and mental burnout. Van der Poel is incredibly talented, perhaps one of the most talented cyclists of all-time, but he is racing against extremely talented riders who are completely committed to success in single disciplines. On top of this, he is carrying a major burden by being the lone leader of an Alpecin-Fenix team that lacks depth, which will have a much more demanding racing schedule in 2021 than it has in years past due to their positions as the sport’s top ProTeam team.

The Case of the Missing Sprint

While it would be impossible to argue van der Poel had a disappointing season in 2020, signs of stress were possibly already appearing. Van der Poel seriously struggled early in the pre-COVID road season. After the pandemic forced him to take a five-month break from racing, he recovered and had a great post-restart season. But one could argue that this forced break from racing was responsible for his resurgence later in the year.

Even with his successes post-restart, there were parts of his impressive arsenal that failed to appear back to the level he previously displayed. In 2019, he was emerging as one of the best bunch sprinters in the world. His ability to produce massive watts for up to 20-30 seconds meant he was able to launch incredibly early and hold off the world’s best sprinters. He was experiencing so much success that he felt bold enough to publically ponder why every sprinter didn’t simply start their sprints incredibly early to be assured of a win every time.

I’ve pasted a screenshot below of two sprint-heavy stage races van der Poel raced in 2019, and just glancing at this result sheet we can see both his absurd consistency and dominance in sprint stages. In fact, the only time he finished outside the top-20 in these two races was Stages 3 & 4 of the Arctic Tour of Norway, one of which was a summit finish and the other featured a significant amount of climbing.

(Result on the far left.)

However, during the 2020 season, this sublime bunch sprinting was completely absent. In fact, he failed to even crack the top-25 in any sprint stage at Tirreno-Adriatico. He did win the final stage, but that was with an impressive solo attack. And this set the tone for the rest of his 2020 campaign. At the BinckBank Tour, he yet again failed to win, or even seriously challenge, a sprint stage, but won the final stage with an absurdly long and impressive solo breakaway. It almost appears as though these solo wins were a result of van der Poel knowing his sprint was lacking and attacking far out to capitalize on his superior brute strength.

In the screenshot below I’ve pasted results from two consecutive sprint-heavy stage races in the 2020 season, and we can clearly see a dropoff in consistency and competitiveness in sprints compared to 2019. He failed to finish inside the top-10 in any bunch sprint stage at Tirreno-Adriatico and failed to win a sprint stage at the BinckBank Tour. And as I said above, his two wins in these races were a result of long-distance breakaways, not sprint-finish successes.

(Result on the far left)

This is clearly an unscientific comparison but it would be wise to note this apparent dropoff and keep an eye on it in 2021 to see if this is actually a trend.

The performance that provided the most striking contrast to the version we saw in 2018/2019 was De Brabantse Pijl, where he seemed to second-guess his sprinting ability in the final kilometer and was beaten by Julian Alaphilippe, who, while fast, wouldn’t have been able to come close to outsprinting van der Poel in 2019. This all could have been a bigger talking point if he didn’t fare so well at races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Giro di Lombardia and Tour of Flanders. The courses at Liège and Lombardia didn’t suit his abilities yet he finished in the top-10 at both, and he won Flanders in a two-up sprint against Van Aert just seven days later. This win marked the first Monument win of his career and makes it hard to argue that his 2020 road season was anything but a resounding success. Still, this his seemingly missing sprint form was certainly odd and makes me wonder/worry if it is the first sign that his race-heavy schedule is starting to blunt some of his explosiveness.

How to Make Money on This Theory

Each rider is approaching this with a different approach, and I certainly think Wout Van Aert is making a more measured and ultimately, intelligent decision, but I can’t help but feel that this is unnecessary wear and tear on their bodies coming off a highly intense season with another long season right around the corner. If you want to monetize this observation, you should start to “short” these riders in the spring classics right now.

For example, if we take a look at the odds for 2021 Paris-Roubaix, Van Aert and van der Poel are the heavy, heavy favorites for the eventual win, while riders like Mads Pedersen, Oliver Naesen, Kasper Asgreen, and Zdeněk Štybar, all world-class Classics stars are extreme underdogs despite having far better build-ups to the event due to their laser focus on road racing.

Van Aert and van der Poel are both so talented that one of them could very well win Roubaix even with their absurd schedules, but the odds for the riders listed above are so favorable that is means if you think there is a hint of hubris with the two stars’ schedules, we can sprinkle a few dollars on Pedersen, Asgreen and Naesen and receive an outsized payoff if one of these extremely talented one-days riders come through.

I hate to rain on the race-all-the-time parade, and in an age of hyper-scientific training and rider specialization, I truly enjoy van der Poel and Van Aert’s willingness to throw caution to the wind by racing nearly year-round and look forward to their battle this weekend, but I can’t help but feel that both riders are blunting their ultimate upside on the road by continuing to do this unsustainable dance.