As Mathieu van der Poel sprinted to victory at Dwars Door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, he was being willed on by his father from a team car just a couple of kilometres away. Adri van der Poel, winner of the 1986 Tour of Flanders, had spent the day as a helper for the Corendon-Circus team, handing out bidons at the top of the Knokteberg, and revelled in his son's first WorldTour win and major breakthrough as a Classics star.
Like his father, Van der Poel won the cyclo-cross world title earlier this year, and hopes are higher than ever that he might just emulate him again with victory at Flanders on Sunday.
A former junior road race world champion, the 24-year-old Van der Poel has spent most of his career focusing on cyclo-cross and mountain bike, but won the Dutch national title on the road last year. This year, he is riding his first spring Classics campaign and is already off to a flyer. Victory at the GP de Denain towards the end of March was one thing, but his Dwars victory – off the back of an eye-catching fourth-place performance at Gent-Wevelgem – showed he already belongs with the very best.
"So far, his career has been built up very well. He hasn't gone to big races too young. His main goal was to win one race in the early part of this season, and he already has two. Everything is going very well so far," Adri van der Poel told Cyclingnews in Waregem.
What caught the eye at Dwars Door Vlaanderen – and indeed at Denain and Gent-Wevelgem – was Van der Poel's all-out aggression. His director Michel Cornelisse had given some advance warning, saying the Classics would be a 'playground' for him, but it has still been surprising the way a novice has gone on the attack so early.
The older Van der Poel says that's always been the way, though did warn it wouldn't always work out the way it did at Denain and Dwars.
"He doesn't like to sit the whole day in the peloton. You never know when he's attacking. It's the same as Van Aert – they like to ride," he said.
"So far, he has very nice results, but also for sure in the future he’ll do the same thing but without a result. That's the other side. As a young rider you don't have to count a lot when you think it's a good moment to go. OK, today it turned out to be a good moment, but even if he didn't win today, it's also good. When you stay in the peloton you do nothing. At least you have done something."
Adri van der Poel insisted his son won't be cowed by the Monument status and length (270km) of the Tour of Flanders, and would stick to his attacking instincts. He is sure he has the ability to fight for victory in the race at his first attempt.
"Like always, I'll tell him 'try to enjoy your day'. It's a long race, between six and seven hours, and he has to be concentrated the whole time. He has to try to be in the front where necessary, try to be relaxed when necessary, try to do a good finale, and you never know.
"To win this race you have to be good. That's OK, he's good. But also you have to be a little bit lucky," he added, before joking: "It's better he waits until next year and doesn't win everything in one year."
Van der Poel doesn't have just the one Tour of Flanders champion in his camp. Stijn Devolder, who claimed back-to-back titles at De Ronde with QuickStep in 2007 and 2008, now rides as the road captain for the Corendo-Circus team.
He has nearly two decades worth of experience, and rode alongside a young Tom Boonen, but Van der Poel, he reckons, is something else.
"I never saw a talent like this before in cycling. He's a special guy," Devolder said outside the team bus in Waregem on Wednesday.
"I'm not surprised at all. We all know it was about to happen someday and today he showed what he is capable of."
Asked what amazes him most about the rider 15 years his junior, he said: "Everything. Every move he makes is just…something unique. I never seen that in cycling before."
Devolder revealed he hadn’t been called upon to share his wisdom – "Mathieu is a rider who doesn’t need advice" – but echoed Adri in saying he would be competitive on his Ronde debut.
"It's his first Flanders but he's so talented and I'm sure he's ready to be there with the big favourites. He is now no secret, everyone sees he’s in good shape. He can do everything he wants, so for sure he is one of the big favourites," he said.
"He needs to be there in the finale and do the right things at the right moments. We've seen from the last races that there are maybe 10 favourites and there’s not one rider who’s really above the others. That makes it tactically very hard to win the race. You have to choose the right moment and have good legs.
"He doesn’t have to be afraid of QuickStep. Sunday is 90km longer than today but I don’t think that’s going to be a problem for him."