One of the most talented riders of the modern generation, Mathieu van der Poel, will start his season earlier than expected at Milano-Sanremo, the longest race on the UCI calendar. The Alpecin-Fenix star has had rapid improvement in the space of an eight week training block after rehabbing a back injury and has (fortunately for us) uploaded every training ride on Strava with power and heart rate data.
The Back Injury
Due to a lingering back injury that has plagued him since the Tour de France, van der Poel needed to cut short his cyclocross season, skipped the World Championships and even had to completely stop training for a period of time after Christmas. There have been slightly conflicting reports from van der Poel, his father and the Roodhoft brothers regarding the exact nature or cause of the injury, but they have suggested that the Alpecin-Fenix star was even below par when he ended his 2021 season with the muddy and tough Paris-Roubaix last October. There he finished third, losing in the sprint in the Roubaix velodrome to Sonny Colbrelli and Florian Vermeersch.
The public had most visibly seen van der Poel in pain after he landed hard on his back at the Tokyo Olympics, where he crashed hard in the cross-country mountain-bike race. Following this crash, van der Poel had to leave an Alpecin-Fenix training camp in August due to back pain, as he was preparing for the postponed Paris-Roubaix.
Whatever the exact cause of his back issue or the nature of it, he participated in only two races during the cyclo-cross-season, where he finished 2nd in the UCI World Cup race in Denermonde, losing 49 seconds to Wout van Aert, and on the next day did not finish Telenet Superprestige Heusden-Zolder race. It was announced at the start of January that van der Poel would be given a period of total enforced rest, completely off the bike until he was free of back pain, with his entire classics season on the road in jeopardy.
The Return to Training
After just a one month break, Van der Poel’s first training rides started on 29th January. He started with three easy rides on Zwift and then progressed to outdoors in Belgium. The rides were not hard, with average power on the outdoor rides ranging from 200 to 230 watts, with the longest one being barely three hours long.
Take note at this point in MVDP’s preparation, his average heart rate for the power he produced. 140 BPM for around 200 watts in January, 148 BPM for 215-220 watts in the first week of February. The ratio between his power and heart rate was going to rapidly change in the next few weeks.
Training camp in Spain
After a week getting back into the swing of things, MVDP flew down to Alicante in Spain for presumably a replication of the training camp he would ordinarily have done with Alpecin-Fenix in January. Van der Poel immediately increased his training ride length, incorporated some efforts after a few days, and as it was mountainous terrain, his normalized power also increased on the easier/moderate rides without any specific efforts.
We do not know the exact status of van der Poel’s back injury throughout this period but it seems very unlikely that three weeks or so off the bike in January will have allowed the injury to be completely fixed. There is also a sign in the training data that MVDP and his coach, Kristof de Kegel, were trying not to aggravate his back, with him performing no sprint efforts at all across the training block.
Even without sprint efforts, van der Poel started to introduce some training intensity very soon after arriving in Alicante. His coached often prescribed short over/under intervals as well as regular 15 minute tests. Below is one of the over/under sessions the Dutchman did during the training camp.
After a month of training, van der Poel did a test on the famous Coll de Rates segment. He produced 389 watts for 15:35 at an average heart rate of 177 BPM (5.19 w/kg if we assume his weight was 75 kg, which is his Strava input weight). Van der Poel lost to the KOM holder, Jacob Hindsgaul, by two minutes and 35 seconds. Hindsgaul set the record in 2019, when he was 18-year-old and in 2022, the Dane won Tour of Antalya GC and a stage that finished on the Termessos climb.
This test on the 26th of February came after 12 or so actual training rides since MVDP returned to training and unsurprisingly was significantly below what he can do at his peak level. The very next day, MVDP performed a a VO2 max test at the end of a long ride, producing 449 watts (5.99 w/kg) for just under eight minutes.
Cyclists need to perform after a lot of fatigue at the end of races (particularly the classics that MVDP targets) and this test result was much more encouraging than MVDP’s 15 minute test the day before.
Huge Progress in March
In March van der Poel upped his training load and progressed his power at various test durations at an astonishing rate.
On the very first ride of the month, just three days after his 15 minute test at the end of February, MVDP did three efforts all with higher power at a longer duration than during the test. On his second effort of the ride, just over 15 minutes, he did 10 watts more at 10BPM less than three days before as well as another VO2 max test to finish the ride with 20 watts more than before.
MVDP seemed happy with his progress, captioning the ride – “finally some good legs.”
The next week followed a similar training pattern, long rides with over/under work but with the watts on the overs now dialled up to 450-460 watts instead of 420. On 12th March van der Poel did an impressive 15 minute test on the Collao Laguar por Castells climb, producing 469 watts for 14:35 (6.25 w/kg).
He did the first 13:31 with 460 watts and ended the effort with a big surge to replicate a race scenario. This effort shows his insane physiological progress in just a few weeks. Remember that end of February Coll de Rates test, where he produced 389 watts for 15:35 (5.19 w/kg)? Just two weeks later MVDP has done the same test with an additional 1 w/kg, at a lower heart rate and with irregular pacing – incredible improvement.
Van der Poel’s heartrate for a given power also lowered significantly during his Alicante training block. Despite MVDP doing longer rides with many efforts later in the training camp, with aerobic decoupling usually occurring during such rides, his average ride heart rate was the same (135 BPM) for a 318 normalised power ride in March as it was for a 225 normalised power ride in February.
What to Expect fom MVDP
Obviously MVDP cannot maintain this rate of improvement indefinitely and much of the performance gains are from hitting his body with some big weeks after nearly a month off.
Van der Poel’s training kilometres, time and gained vertical metres since 31st January
Fans of van der Poel and Alpecin-Fenix will be hoping that he and the Roodhofts have been true to their word that they would be patient with his recovery and he would only ride if he was completely pain-free. From the outside it does look like they ramped up the training volume very fast, doing back-to-back 27 hour weeks just a few days after his first 45 minute tentative Zwift rides. There is an unfortunate possibility that the team has also seen his incredibly fast progress and has deviated from their original long-term plan, so that they can be more competitive at Milano-Sanremo.
However in Alpecin’s announcement of MVDP’s participation in Sanremo (just 24 hours before it starts), they stated that he would “participate without expectations” and because they had several sick riders that could not participate.
He may line up without expectations from the team, but once into the heat of the moment, van der Poel only knows how to race one way. Hopefully he puts on a show, stays healthy and they continue with his recovery in focus for the rest of the year.