Victory for Danny van Poppel in stage 12 of the Vuelta a Espana was a breakthrough first WorldTour win for the 22-year-old Trek Factory rider - but it also fulfilled expectations that have been swirling around the Dutch sprinter for the best part of three years, or even earlier.
As the son of one of Holland’s top all-time fastmen, John-Paul van Poppel - a points jersey winner in the Tour de France and victorious in stages in all three Grand Tours (including nine in the Vuelta) - van Poppel’s turn of speed quickly brought him to the public’s attention when he turned pro aged 19 in 2013.
And as if the ‘like-father-like-son’ stories weren’t flourishing fast enough thanks to van Poppel senior's prolific sprint success in the 1980s and 1990s, third place in the first stage of the 2013 Tour for Vancansoleil behind Marcel Kittel earned Danny van Poppel an even higher public profile.
Stage victories in the Tour of Luxemberg and Wallonie as well as third in the 2014 Scheldeprijs and fifth in the Belgian Classic in 2015, represented solid progress for van Poppel. But the ‘big win’ continued to elude him.
Then finally, racing in Trek Factory’s Vuelta line-up alongsie his brother, Boy van Poppel, that win has arrived - in a chaotic bunch sprint in Lleida, the same finish where a certain Mark Cavendish took a Vuelta stage victory back in 2010, when the Grand Tour last visited the Catalan city.
“When I got third in the Tour in that 2013 stage, I was a little bit famous because of that,” van Poppel reflected, “so now it’s important to have got a win in my own right, not because I was once a good young rider in the Tour.”
Van Poppel forged his own path, too, during the stage 12 sprint, initially following John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) as the fastmen jostled for position on the long, straight finish in Lleida before switching to the other side of the road.
“The team did a great job. [Teammate] Popo [Yaroslav Popovych] brought me up on a good wheel, then I started following Degenkolb’s wheel.”
The sprinters’ teams only swept up the last of the breakaways almost within sight of the finish, making it extremely difficult for the fastmen to maintain their line. Crucially, van Poppel opted to leave Degenkolb’s wheel just before the German was blocked in, and that choice allowed the Dutchman to blast up the centre of the road en route to netting Trek Factory Racing’s second stage of the 2015 Vuelta.
“He went up one side of the road, and I went up the other, but it was a very long final sprint, I must have gone with 300 metres to go,” he commented.
Van Poppel had not paid much attention to the breakaways, he said, or whether the bunch would be able to catch them. “You don’t think a lot about that when you’re focussed on a sprint. I saw some attacks near the finish but I knew I had to get on Degenkolb’s wheel. I wasn’t sure, though, if there were still people ahead of us from the break when I crossed the line.”
If possible breakaways were a predictable enough obstacle for van Poppel and the other sprinters to overcome, then a slow puncture around 12km from the line was far more unexpected.
The Dutchman, after some deliberation, opted to get a wheel change. “I was thinking about maybe continuing, but I was going slower and slower so I realised I needed to change it,” he said, “I changed it very quickly. The team told me I shouldn’t panic and to race smart between the cars.
“We weren’t pulling at the front” - as Trek Factory had been doing all day alongside Giant-Alpecin - “but the guys waited for me, and Popo’ did a great job for me in the final.” As a result of Trek Factory’s disappearance from the front as van Poppel’s teammates powered their sprinter back into contention, the break gained a little more breathing space, but as the bunch swept past the five escapees some 200 metres from the line, van Poppel’s decision to get that tyre change was proven to be the right one.
The other factor playing in van Poppel’s favour was the much cooler weather that has greeted the Vuelta’s return to Spain after three days in Andorra, compared to the searingly high temperatures of the first segment of the race. “I missed my chances earlier on because of the heat,” van Poppel said, “I suffered a lot in that.”
Racing alongside teammate Jesper Stuyven, the Belgian sprinter who won in Murcia on stage 8, had not been an issue, he said. “We know each other really well, and when the stages were hillier” - as in Murcia - "we agreed we’d work for him, then for me on the flatter stages. We worked really well together, but he’s gone [abandoned] now.”
With less than half of the Vuelta to go, van Poppel knew that his own opportunities, though, were increasingly limited in what remained of the race. “It was either today or Madrid,” he said, and as it turned out, Lleida was where the young Dutchman turned up trumps in the sprint.