This wasn’t some minor race on a ball-freezing day in March on the outskirts of Antwerp.

This wasn’t a club run on a wet and miserable Sunday in December in Norwich.

This wasn’t a typhoon day ride in Taipei.

All of the above, by the way, are justifiably missable… but still not justifiably ditchable.

I’ve ditched a race and it still pains me, a deeper hurt than the height of the joys I feel from any of my wins. We’d driven from Fukuoka on the southern island of Japan to Nagano, 8 guys in a van with poor AC, in the middle of a sweltering Japanese summer, for a top tier JCA race, 120km over a loop with a 6km climb.

16 hours driving with a three hour ‘nap’ at a highway service station. We arrived at the race HQ 30 minutes before the start, scrambling about for race numbers and gels, just about making it in time. Half way through the first lap, on the descent of the hill, two spokes popped out. Luckily our manager was at the bottom of the hill with a wheel. I grabbed it and took off in hot pursuit of the best riders in Japan.

I stormed up the hill at way over threshold, got to the plateau and took way too many risks on the descent, then same again next lap. Just a couple of hundred meters off the summit on the 4th lap (of 6 laps) I caught back onto the now-splintered group. I was on a flier, my legs were gold that day. And just at the very moment when I could have reached out and touched the last rider in the lead pack…. I quit.

I’m still not sure why. I think I felt like I’d won my race, something like that – but it was the weirdest feeling, to give up like that. And it’s been with me since. There’s no getting away from the day when I just gave up.

Fast forward 14 years (yikes) and we have VDP tanking out of the World Elite Men’s Road Race in Wolongong on Sunday just gone. Slightly different situation to my race in Nagano – but I know that he won’t be feeling good – I think we all do…

If you’re not familiar with what happened in the early hours of the race day morn and since, here’s a recap:

VDP is now on his way home from a race in which he participated for just 30 minutes after paying a AU$1500 fine, after admitting that he had assaulted two teenage girls. 

The girls were playing ‘knock and run’ in the hotel hall late at night, repeatedly knocking (randomly) on VDP’s door and running away. 

Van der Poel said he didn’t get back to his hotel room til 4am, ruining his preparation for the World’s race that morning. 

Van der Poel was later tried for two cases of common assault. He was fined $1,500 AUD. The judge charges Van der Poel that he has taken the law into his own hands. Van der Poel’s lawyer, Michael Bowe, called the conviction ‘disappointing’.

However, Bowe then admitted that Van der Poel had taken the law into his own hands. “It was late, he was under pressure to perform. And everyone makes mistakes. He will learn from this.”

Bowe then said VDP was disappointed ‘in the verdict’, which seems odd – to be unhappy with the verdict – when you’ve admitted to the assault in the first place. He also said he feels he has “let his country and his team down,” Bowe said.

So, this was definitely not a great morning for the hot favourite to win the famous Rainbow hoops later that day. I’m sure his mind would have been scattered and he’d have been tired as a result of the lack of sleep.

But to drop out after just 30km, of the World Champs Road Race, the race you’ve been focussing on all year – the race for which your national team manager has assembled a squad that was built specifically to help you win?

This is something I don’t get. If you’re tired, if the head is not right, deal with that and work for a teammate. The Dutch could have done with even a second or third-rate VDP riding at the front and setting the pace towards the end of the race. Instead, they ended up left to communicate to each other that VDP was out after just 30km in a race without team radios, then to try to formulate a Plan B on the road.

VDP at the start of the Worlds
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Had MVP told them he might pull out in the early stages? Had a Plan B been formulated in which VDP wasn’t even on the road? Who knows. What we do know is that no Dutch rider – from a strong team – finished in the top 10.

VDP was not injured physically. He did not have food poisoning. He did have a crappy night’s sleep and he had been arrested, unpleasant for sure, but I believe it was his duty to put this altercation aside and stand up for the other members of the team that were there to work for him, whether he had the legs or headspace to fight for the win or not.

A valiant three hour effort chasing and pulling for his team would have been far better than this, a withdraw after 30km. Sure, pro athletes are highly conditioned and at times, as a result, fragile when their rhythm is upset, but if he’s admitting assault then he is at least partially if not totally to blame for what happened.

Not that you’d think that if you form your opinions after reading comments on social media. From what we can glean from Youtube and Twitter, the parents of the teens need a beating, or the police are corrupt, ‘someone’ paid the girls to knock on his door, or it was the fault of the Dutch logistics planner to not have VDP protected at all times.

Yet he is after all a 27 year old man. The two assaulted are teens. They were playing a silly game that most of us have probably played before. They didn’t know it was the favourite for the Worlds’ door they were knocking on. If he had been a ‘normal’ person and we’d read of the case, wouldn’t many be saying that it was just kids having fun?

Yet perhaps that’s for another discussion? Perhaps not. Perhaps we are blaming anyone but the man who himself has admitted responsibility for this – which in itself takes some courage to own up to – but his many fans are quite wilfully not listening to that part.

Back to the race, lest we forget: he dropped out after 30km.

This wasn’t some minor race on a ball-freezing day in March on the outskirts of Antwerp.

This wasn’t a club run on a wet and miserable Sunday in December in Norwich.

This wasn’t a typhoon day ride in Taipei.

This wasn’t a JCA race in Nagano…

This was the Worlds.

And he’s correct, he did let his teammates down. He should have ridden on.

If you’d like to add your thoughts here please do, or head to the Crank Punk FB page to join the discussion there.

Author: Lee Rodgers

Cycling coach, race organiser, former professional cyclist and the original CrankPunk.

4 thoughts

  1. You would think he would have called the Directeur Sportif & gotten him to address things; it’s not his first rodeo. That said, he definitely could have rode hard for another on his team if he were knackered. As we say here in the theatre: “Suck it up, Buttercup.”

  2. Disagree.

    The spoilt behaviour was shown by the teenagers. The irresponsible behaviour by their parents, who were not there. Whether the teenagers knew they knocked on the door of a world class cyclist or not doesn’t matter. You don’t do such things. Parents should keep their children in check. Period.

    I’m a vocational college teacher in The Netherlands. After twenty years in Taiwan I am shocked by the spoilt and undisciplined behaviour of young people over here. Dutch people are proud of their ultra liberal society. Facing consequences, behaving decently are dismissed as a representation of authoriatarianism. As a result, young people can bloody do what they want, uncorrected. If they would behave in a similar manner in Taiwan, where I taught for twenty years, they would face severe consequences. Rightfully so. You don’t want to know the behaviour and language I have to accept as a Dutch teacher.

    I am not defending Van der Poel because we have the same nationality. Van der Poel is a champion. What he did in both one day-and stages races is highly extraordinary. This not only requires talent and hard work. It demands an exceptional mind set. I get this because I was an elite ultra long distance runner long, long time ago. I was Dutch 100K champion in 1996. In 1997 I set a record at a 120K on the island of Texel. Was this based on sheer talent and hard work? Partly. Other runners were talented and trained hard as well. The very reason why I ended up in front of them was my mentality.

    Van der Poel was, from this exceptional pre-disposition, enormously focused on the World Championships. He was one of the favourites. Exactly the silly and spoilt disruption of this focus and careful preparation made him angry and drop out. I think he reacted in a mild manner. If teenagers would have done this to me, the night before the Dutch 100K championships or the Texel 120K trail run, I would have reacted more harshly: “Get lost, ask your parents to raise you properly, get proper education, you spoilt pricks. You sue me? I bloody sue you and your parents.”

    Just because Van der Poel was dealing with the World Championships and not with an, for pro riders, off season exhibition race like the Taiwan KOM, he dropped out: “What the hell is going on over here? I prepared for, and set my mind to, the most important race and this silliness is screwing me around?” Again, if such a thing would happen at a hotel in Hualien (which is, given the Taiwanese society, highly unthinkable) he most probably would think; “Fine, I’m having a nice time on an exotic island (and here he comes:), these are not The World Championships, relax.”

    Van der Poel is not spoilt. He is disciplined, harsh, lethal. Because of this, he reacted the way he reacted.

  3. addendum:

    Van der Poel pleaded guilty and paid a 1500 dollar fine because he wanted to leave the misery as soon as possible, otherwise he would have faced a rather lengthy court case. They had taken his passport.

    He officially admitted he let his team down. He did this in hindsight, from a social context. This shows Van der Poel is not only harsh, but a gentleman as well. However, his teammates and former Dutch pro cyclists say he didn’t have to admit this. The majority fully understands.

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