Mathieu van der Poel remounts his mountain bike Sunday to ride the Olympic test event at Elancourt hill in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, the site for mountain bike competitions at the Paris Olympic Games next year.
Other elite athletes expected to participate include multidisciplinary World Champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, four-time French MTB champion Loana Lecomte, reigning women’s XCO European champion Puck Pieterse, Rio Olympics gold medalist and 10-time World Champion Nino Schurter and Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Tom Pidcock.
Just two UCI-sanctioned races will be held Sunday, one for women at 1:00 p.m. local time and one for men at 3:00 p.m. local time, on a 4.4km course. A total of 39 women and 43 men are part of the start lists.
Paris 2024 organisers offered the test events not just for competitions, but for feedback from athletes. Gerben de Knegt, the Dutch mountain bike national coach, said the team had special interest in the technical aspects of the course and how it matched abilities for key athletes, like Van der Poel.
“The [athletes] would like to be able to make an estimate in advance of the gravity of the climbs and experience for themselves how technically certain passages are. This is how you can get an idea of how the course matches your skills and if you want to add certain skills in the run-up to the Paris 2024 Olympics. We are happy that we can – relatively close to home – for a weekend to see how the route is,” De Knegt stated on the KNWU Instagram feed.
Van der Poel is one of the team’s headliners and in a quest to represent the Netherlands in cross-country mountain biking at the Paris Olympic Games in 2024. The newly-crowned road race World Champion comes into the test event from a road victory at SUPER 8 Classics a week ago. HIs last appearance on a mountain bike was in the cross-country race at the World Championships in Scotland, where he crashed out on the first lap.
It was a similar scenario for Van der Poel at the Tokyo Olympic Games where he crashed out of the XCO race on the opening lap. It was his only chance for a medal, as he had pulled out of the elite men’s road race. Van der Poel could attempt the road-MTB double-header in Paris, as the elite men’s road race is scheduled for August 3, five days following the cross-country mountain bike contest.
“We don’t have two Van der Poel-types. It remains to be seen what choices he makes,” Koos Moerenhout, another Dutch national team coach on the ground in France, told Wielerflits.
“He’s also not going to do both disciplines if he doesn’t have confidence in either of them. In the coming period, we will have conversations to see where his priorities lie. Mathieu always gets an extra star because of his finishing quality. But then everything has to be right.”
Confidence with the mountain bike course will be more important than the result this Sunday.
“We will know what that course looks like and what plans we can make for it after this weekend. I have tried to collect information about that course in all kinds of ways, but it is very limited,” De Knegt told the Dutch news outlet.
“It can be a climbing course with two long climbs, or an interval course with several short climbs. It may be that Mathieu thinks very differently about his mountain bike ambitions in Paris after Sunday. But I would like to discuss his preparation.”
Part of the scenario is that the Paris Olympic Games come on the heels of the Tour de France, where Van der Poel plans to race for his Alpecin-Deceuninck team. The Tour was moved to a week earlier than usual, between June 29-July 21, with the Paris Olympic Games beginning on July 26.
“If you do the whole Tour, that also means you don’t touch the mountain bike for three weeks and you only have eight days to hone the feeling on that bike again. It all hinges on what Mathieu himself wants. That should be clear soon,” De Knegt added.
“It also depends on the course. An interval course leans much closer to the road. To be fair: the road race in Paris, Mathieu likes that very much. But the combination is a challenge.”
Sunday’s test event takes place on an open slot on the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup calendar, taking place conveniently following events in Les Gets, France and before the final two competitions in North America – Snowshoe, West Virginia from September 29-October 1 and Mont-Sainte-Anne, Québec from October 6-8.
Elancourt hill is a public park that was transformed four decades ago from long-closed sandstone quarries. The hill itself reaches a height of 231 metres, the highest point in the Paris region and offers views of the Eiffel Tower from the summit. The majority of bike paths in this location, up to 95%, will be used for mountain bike competitions next summer, designed by South African expert Nick Floros, according to Paris 2024 organisers.
Van der Poel is still looking for an elusive Olympic Games medal, and he may have a chance at two. The routes for the road races at the Paris Games were unveiled in early July this year, with the men facing the longest course in the history of the Games, 273km. Packed with 13 punchy climbs, the elevation gain adds up to 2,800 metres and suits the style of a rider like Van der Poel. After the announcement the World Champion said “this could be a Classic in Flanders”.
Now the climbs and turns of the mountain bike course need a closer inspection. It is still 11 months away until the true test, but assessments and preparations begin Sunday.