The 81st edition of Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday was the first-ever WorldTour race for Mathieu van der Poel (Correndon-Circus), and the Dutch road race champion acquitted himself well to take fourth place behind winner Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and AG2r's Oliver Naesen, which means that he'll head to next week's Tour of Flanders brimming with confidence.
Coming into Gent-Wevelgem at the weekend, a lot was expected from reigning cyclo-cross world champion Van der Poel due to the fact that his 'cross arch rival, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), has left a lasting impression in recent races.
A crash in the bunch sprint at Nokere Koerse 10 days ago originally cast doubts over Van der Poel's participation on Sunday, but a win at the GP de Denain last week proved that the 24-year-old was ready, and he didn't disappoint in the 252-kilometre-long race, featuring in the star-studded breakaway group that was formed when the peloton battled crosswinds early on when leaving the start town of Deinze.
At 85km from the finish, the group was caught by a small peloton. Van der Poel then attacked on the penultimate climb, but his move was neutralised by none other than Van Aert. From there, Van der Poel gambled on a group sprint, in which he finished just off the podium.
More than half an hour after entering the Corendon-Circus team bus, Van der Poel walked back out to talk to the waiting media in Wevelgem.
"Some open wounds from the crash in Nokere needed some treatment, but apart from that I'm OK," Van der Poel said, before looking back on his WorldTour debut.
"I learned that Gent-Wevelgem is a hard race if there's a lot of wind. The European championships were probably slightly harder for me, but this is a close second," he said. "I enjoyed my debut, and there was no time to get bored. It was a special edition, and I don't think that will happen again any time soon. The race was on straight from the start, and was maybe even harder than the start of a cyclo-cross race.
"There was a lot of pushing for position early on, and the race kicked off extremely early – especially for such a long race. If you see the average speed we completed the race in [46.269kph], then you know we weren't hanging around. It's morale-boosting that I could do this [finish fourth] in such a long race with so much wind."
The group of 20 riders that Van der Poel was part of that attacked in the crosswinds also featured big names like former world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Classics specialist John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and European road race champion Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott).
"I was the last rider to bridge up to the lead group," Van der Poel explained. "The gap was probably five seconds at that moment. I just sprinted flat out to get on the wheel of the last rider of that group. It was probably the hardest moment of the race for me. It was obvious that this was a very dangerous group, having so many Trek and Jumbo riders in it. It was clear that the race wouldn't slow down anymore at that point."
Just before the group was caught by the reduced peloton later in the race, Sagan, Trentin, Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo) and Mike Teunissen (Jumbo-Visma) decided to continue their efforts while Van der Poel and others opted to sit up.
"I thought about joining them, but I remembered that, in the briefing, they said that there were still 25 kilometres into the headwind until the finish line after the second ascent of the Kemmelberg. I attacked on the Baneberg, but Wout van Aert was the wrong guy to join me because he had a teammate in the front group. But it could've worked if we were with 10 men," Van der Poel said.
Within the final kilometres, there were multiple attacks, including one that came close to taking the victory, made up of Sebastian Langeveld (EF Education First), Jack Bauer (Mitchelton-Scott), Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Amund Jansen (Jumbo-Visma). Van der Poel had been tempted to join them, too.
"But I figured that Deceuninck-QuickStep would control it to try to set up the sprint for Elia Viviani. They managed to get a bit of a gap, but were reeled back in, so I made the right choice," Van der Poel said.
"I can keep thinking about that final sprint, but you need some luck, too," he continued. "I could've been better positioned. It just has to open up at the right moment, but it closed down. From that perspective, more was possible, but I'm more than happy about the rest of the race."
A sprint at the end of a such a long race often doesn't develop in the same way as a normal sprint. Some sprinters no longer have the same speed in their legs as they might at the end of a shorter race, while other riders excel in such circumstances.
"I was pleased to find that there was still a sprint in my legs," said Van der Poel. "At first, I picked the wrong wheel a couple of times. I was banking on Viviani for the sprint, but he was boxed in. I had to jump from wheel to wheel, and had to hold back briefly, too. That's not ideal for a sprint."
Before the race, Mathieu's father – two-time Tour de France stage winner and 1986 Tour of Flanders champion Adri van der Poel – said that most riders at the start in Deinze were well prepared for these races, whereas his son hadn't had such a dedicated build-up to the spring Classics.
"Wout van Aert was preparing for these race throughout the cyclo-cross season," the older Van der Poel told Cyclingnews in Deinze. "All the riders here have ridden long races, which you can't emulate during training. This race will be over six hours on the bike. I don't know how Mathieu is going to perform over that distance today, but that lack of long-distance racing isn't going to be to his advantage.
"From that perspective, he should be able to improve during this Classics campaign. He feels that the Brabantse Pijl [April 17] might suit him best," he added.
Less than six hours later, it had become clear that Mathieu van der Poel may now be able to be considered a serious contender for the Tour of Flanders this weekend – the race his father won 33 years ago.
"I think I've got my spot in the favourites group, but there are riders with better chances of winning than me," he said. "First, I'll ride Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, but Gent-Wevelgem today was certainly a great race to improve my form."