Ahead of the 2021 Road World Championships, Mathieu van der Poel was one of the biggest question marks among the contenders for the elite men's road race. The Dutch ace struggled with a back injury for months and he waited until the last moment to confirm his participation for the 268km race in Leuven, Belgium.
Despite a lack of race rhythm at the highest level, Van der Poel is always a major contender to take into account. On Sunday, he rode a rather anonymous race but in the end, a good sprint led him to an eighth place. His compatriot Dylan van Baarle stepped forward and grabbed a silver medal after finishing 32 seconds behind the untouchable winner Julian Alaphilippe (France).
“I prefer to ride more attractively but it wasn’t possible today. It was a really hard race. We can be very happy about the silver medal for Dylan. I get along well with Dylan. At 30km from the finish he came over to me and asked if I wanted him to close gaps. I told him that if he felt good that I preferred him to jump along with the attacks. That would be more beneficial. He won Dwars door Vlaanderen in the past. I knew he was capable of doing it. He did it perfectly. He’s rewarded nicely with a silver medal,” Van der Poel said when arriving at the mixed zone in Leuven.
The world title race opened up early and Van der Poel was nowhere to be seen except at the back of the peloton. He was seen being at the wrong part of a major split in the peloton halfway through the race. Bauke Mollema managed to deliver him back to the first peloton.
At 57km from the finish a major selection was made on the cobbled Bekestraat climb where Alaphilippe went full gas. Six riders were able to mark the French star but shortly afterwards ten more riders bridged up with the lead group, including Van der Poel.
“I suffered big time during the first half of the race and failed to get into the rhythm. I really wasn’t good. I was always at the back of the group and that wasn’t where you wanted to be. I was unable to move up. Bauke had to close a big gap for me, too. I really wasn’t looking forward to that second Flandrien loop," he said.
"I think I was one of the last guys to make it into the group of 17 riders. From there, I was feeling more comfortable because there were fewer accelerations. I wasn’t feeling bad but had nothing extra. Before the race, I hoped to be able to make a move somewhere but that wasn’t possible today. Then I hoped we would be able to sprint for the medals because I felt like I still had a sprint in my legs. I lacked the two or three stupid attacks in my legs of which I’m usually capable of."
Next week, Van der Poel will be taking part in his maiden Paris-Roubaix, a postponed edition due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s the first time his Alpecin-Fenix team was invited by race organiser ASO.
Van der Poel had high hopes that he would be a factor during the Hell of the North now that his back problems seem to be somewhat resolved.
“My back was alright. It didn’t bother me today. My form is currently below par, as I indicated before the race. I’m not expecting my back to become a problem for Paris-Roubaix. Hopefully this race is helping me to improve my form with the eye on Paris-Roubaix,"he said.
"I’m looking forward to it. It’s something new obviously. It should suit me. Hopefully I made a big step forward today. Now there’s a bit of recovery and from Wednesday on we’ll do two recon riders. Then maybe I’ll be capable of riding a race like today with something more left in my tank for the finale,” Van der Poel said.
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