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Mountain Bike Master  

June 06, 2014
Mountain Bike Master

Paul Van Der Ploeg

This is a guy you want on your (soccer) team

All five Van Der Ploeg boys grew up naturally gifted athletes which, given they lived 15km out of Mt Beauty and were too young to drive, posed its fair share of logistical challenges for mum and dad. Between cross-country skiing, mountain bike riding, cross-country running and numerous other sports, the Van Der Ploeg dance card was full week-in, week-out.

This was relieved somewhat when the boys were placed into the same soccer team – ping-ponging between town and farm slowed down just a fraction. But alas, the brothers united were a formidable force and kept winning every single match. Mt Beauty had little choice - the talent pool was divided and the boys were split into various teams to ensure a bit more of an even playing field. Literally.

Perhaps surprisingly, none of the Van der Ploegs currently represent Australia on the soccer field however, they all seem to have done their fair share of flying the flag at an elite level. Mum and dad represented Australia in cross-country skiing ‘back in the 70s’, older brother Daniel became a world-class mountain biker and cross-country skier (until an accident cut short his incredible sporting career), Mark is also an elite skier, Neil is now road racing at Grand Tour level – one can only imagine the size of this family’s pool room. And thanks to Paul, they might well need extensions…

The youngest in the pack, Paul Van der Ploeg spent his early years getting bundled into the car and driving off with the family to watch one of the several brothers compete in one of the several sports. Paul inherited his brothers’ hand-me-down bikes along with their passion and skill for riding. He worked on his family’s chestnut orchard earning a whopping $1,000 (trust us – that is a lot of chestnut picking!), 100 per cent of which went straight into his first purchase – a Hoffman Condor BMX. It was a wise investment – it helped fuel the early fire that has led to Paul becoming one of Australia’s most talented and lauded mountain bikers.

Last year Paul achieved a rarity for Australia when he took out the 2013 UCI MTB World Championships in South Africa. For the flattest continent on Earth, that’s quite an achievement. If you’re looking for the definition of elation, ecstasy and disbelief all rolled into one, then check out YouTube to see his reaction at crossing the line. We kept it looping quite a while here in the office, it was such awesome value.

Surprisingly, Paul is a world champion who doesn’t respond well to too much training. Whilst others are pushing in excess of 20+ hours training a week, Paul tends to keep his down around 15, with intensity work deferred largely for racing only. Mentally, it’s also a winning strategy – he doesn’t have to find the head force to push him during training, which means he can really enjoy his hours in the saddle. It also means that come race day that mental drive is pumped by adrenaline and competitive energy. Depending on where Paul is, training sessions can vary. At home in Mt Beauty there’s obviously no end of mountain trail options. In Melbourne, where Paul is studying Sports Science at RMIT, things aren’t quite as undulating, so he will usually get his fix out on Kew Boulie, pushing it in the weekly Crits or punching out 40 or so hill repeats in some of the steeper sections. It seems like a fairly laid-back approach not all that common at the elite sporting level, but it’s clearly working.

In fact on first impression Paul seems like the more rancho relaxo his environment, the better his race performance. Certainly in retrospect he knows he struggled in Europe’s serious race culture, yet when he speaks of race/life balance, things don’t seem all that laid back. Staying motivated to go out and train every day and keep a positive head space that can juggle riding, racing, studying and social life is an occasional challenge. His Sports Science studies fan the flame every now and again, giving him the guilts that he’s not doing all he can to get the maximum from his body. With the World Champs title his to own for another seven months, we’re left to wonder what can be achieved when he’s working at max…

What perhaps could be minimised is the number of hits versus missus that Paul’s had on the bike. His list of injuries reads like an operating theatre’s week-long schedule. When we chatted to him, he was in week three of a six week recovery from shoulder reconstruction. Yet when asked about his worst injury, he doesn’t hesitate – hands down it was patella tendinopathy following the 2008 world cup season. At the time he was living in Italy and the injury, which required total rest, meant zero cycling. At least with other war wounds he’d been able to jump on a spin bike. Add to this a double whammy from glandular fever and it’s no wonder this is a career lowlight for Paul.

Asked where mountain biking is at in Australia, Paul doesn’t hesitate. It’s not going to slow down, but it still has some distance to go. In an ideal MTB Down Under world, Paul would love to see the perception of the national series become a little more mainstream, so that the thousands of participants who flock to marathon events consider giving the nats a nudge as well.

For Paul – one thing is for sure. There is nothing better than jumping on a bike, getting down to the trails and sucking up the freedom of mountain bike riding.

Paul Van Der Ploeg 2