Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) claimed his first WorldTour victory in only his second race at the top level. After a cracking performance in Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday and a win at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, Van der Poel can no longer - if there was still any doubt - be ignored as one of the top favourites for the upcoming Tour of Flanders on April 7.
In Gent-Wevelgem, the cyclo-cross world champion showed that he has plenty of options: He can cope with the long distance of the Classics, he can fight for position ahead of the short Flemish 'hellingen', he trusts his instincts when he spots an opportunity, and he's got fast legs to sprint for the win as he did at Dwars door Vlaanderen in Waregem on Wednesday afternoon.
"It feels really good, actually. I knew that I had a chance because I felt on Sunday in Gent-Wevelgem that the legs were very good. It was the first time that I rode such a long distance and they raced all race long, so I was pretty satisfied with that race. Today was a distance that I've done already a few times. I knew that I had a chance today."
In the sprint from the five-man leading group, Bob Jungels (Deceuninck-QuickStep) neutralized a late move from Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal). Van der Poel was leading the group when Anthony Turgis (Direct Energie) started his sprint. After accelerating onto the Frenchman's wheel, Van der Poel used his momentum to catapult away from his four breakaway companions.
The Dutch champion had enough time to freewheel until the finish line while pointing one hand up in the air. "I know that I've got a good sprint but you never know if you're the fastest. I knew that some riders would try something and that I had to counter them," Van der Poel said. In the post-race flash interview, he said that he was lucky to spot Turgis.
"In the sprint, I glanced back just in time when Turgis accelerated. I immediately felt that I still had a sprint in my legs. I'm extremely delighted to finish it off here."
A few weeks ago, Van der Poel would have been regarded as an outsider for a podium result in the Ronde van Vlaanderen but his two recent performances propelled him into the role of a favourite. "This isn't to be compared with the Ronde van Vlaanderen," he warned. "[Dwars is] a very hard race but it's 'just' 180 kilometres; that's nearly 100 less than in the Ronde. I wouldn't say that I'm the big favourite but right underneath them. I hope so. We will see on Sunday."
Before the Spring Classics season, Van der Poel said he expected to be at his best at the Brabantse Pijl but two weeks before that race, he's already winning. Father Adrie told Cyclingnews that his son needed the long distance races to get better since he lacked the preparation of most other Classics specialists. The Mathieu van der Poel at the start line of the Tour of Flanders in Antwerp will be a better one than the one who raced in Gent-Wevelgem.
"I think so. I think I'm the rider with the least race days of all riders. That's why I start here today. I need to race kilometres to get better now," Mathieu van der Poel said. "In between the races, the focus is on resting because it's not possible to do more training rides." His personal top favourite for De Ronde is Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe). "I rode with him in Gent-Wevelgem. Stybar and Van Aert are certainly among the favourites, too. They were really impressive on the Kemmel. I'm sure other riders will be good, too, on Sunday."
At the post-race press conference, it was clear that Van der Poel will not crack under the media attention. When asked if he felt that the win at Dwars door Vlaanderen was something special, Van der Poel reacted in his typical style. "It's something you'll remember, the first WorldTour race that you won, so yes, I guess it's special," Van der Poel said, causing a journalist to say that he didn't need to feel like it was special. "It's nice to win. The feeling of winning is the same but it's a lot bigger now," Van der Poel said.
The race in Dwars door Vlaanderen wasn't quite as hard as the flat-out racing in Gent-Wevelgem three days earlier. When asked if he was ever becoming tired, Van der Poel laughed. "The day after Gent-Wevelgem I didn't feel so fresh when I woke up. The day after that I was feeling better again and I knew that I had a chance today if I had the legs," Van der Poel said. That showed as he set the race on fire with an attack at the Knokteberg, the first of five climbs within a distance of twenty kilometres. Van der Poel got into a move with teammate Dries De Bondt, bridged up with the lead group and would never be caught back by the peloton.
Van der Poel stated that he attacked on the Knokteberg climb because his instinct told him it was the best way to get in a good position at the often decisive Taaienberg climb, 12 kilometres further up the road. "After Kluisberg it was really dangerous towards the first time Knokteberg. That's not really why I attacked. It was just because I was in a good position. I was at the right place at the right moment, this time. It was because I had good legs and wanted to anticipate a little bit," Van der Poel said.
Van der Poel often finds his way into breakaways in road races, maybe because of his cyclo-cross and mountain biking background, or possibly he is not comfortable with the nervousness - something that would be understandable in light of his high-speed crash two weeks prior in Nokere Koerse. Whether fear or instinct, this time it was a perfect move.
"I attacked to avoid being pinballed around and get in a distant position at the foot of the Taaienberg. I wanted to race," Van der Poel explained. "It was really hectic in the bunch. I wanted to try if something was possible, to be out of the bunch in the crucial zone with the Taaienberg. I think it was a good move. It was a pity that Dries De Bondt broke his back wheel right after that because otherwise, it would've been easier to get to the front group. It was a good decision in the end. It wasn't planned. It was planned that the other guys would go just before the finale. I think it was [Ivan] Garcia Cortina (Bahrain-Merida) who reacted and I was just on his wheel, so I jumped to go away with them. I immediately saw that we had a good chance.
"I want to race a little bit on instinct and not always based on a plan," Van der Poel said. Racing for a second-tier squad like Corendon-Circus allows the Dutch champion far more latitude than in other squads, but when asked if the orders came from the team car to attack, Van der Poel smiled. "I heard nothing, it was quiet. I don't know why. It turned out to be a smart move. If you get caught and then get dropped on the next climb, then it isn't a smart move. You have to try sometimes to win."
When asked if he would race on instinct again in the Tour of Flanders and attack, Van der Poel didn't hide his ambition to have a go at glory. "If I have the legs, then maybe it's possible. I'm not the only guy who's going to try that. I think Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders are completely different. In Wevelgem, after the last time Kemmel[berg] there's still 30 kilometres to the finish. In the Ronde, at the top of the Paterberg there's 20 kilometres to the finish and the group that is gone there, most of the times stays gone."