Mathieu van der Poel looked crestfallen in Oudenaarde at the finish of the Tour of Flanders. His leaned over the barriers, head bowed as his partner tried to console him, but not before he’d approached Kasper Asgreen to offer him a handshake.
"I think I lost to a stronger guy today," Van der Poel said graciously in defeat.
The Dutchman appeared to be in a perfect position to become the eighth rider in history to win back-to-back editions of the Ronde, as he entered the final kilometre with just Asgreen for company.
The Dane is more of a rouleur and few gave him a chance in a straight-up sprint against the more explosive Van der Poel. But a sprint at the end of 254-kilometres of gruelling racing is another story.
For Van der Poel, outmuscled rather than outmaneuvered, the disappointment was a little easier to swallow.
"It says enough when he keeps riding with me until 1km from the finish line, that he is also sure about his own sprint, and I already felt during race he was really strong today," Van der Poel said.
"For me, the legs were a bit off in the end, so I’m quite disappointed but I think I lost to a stronger guy today so that makes it easier to accept.
"I think did really good race but in the end, there was one guy stronger. I already noticed on the hills that he was one of the strongest guys. When I attacked it was always him who was fastest to follow."
Indeed, Van der Poel and Asgreen looked like the strongest riders in the race as far out as 50km from the finish when they tackled the Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg combination for the first time. Van der Poel forced the issue and led the way over both climbs, with Asgreen right on his case both times and a gap to pre-race favourite Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and the rest.
They didn’t go clear that time, and were on the back foot when Asgreen’s teammate Julian Alaphilippe moved on the Koppenberg, but when they returned to the Oude Kwaremont with 19km to go they were away. Van Aert couldn’t respond to Van der Poel’s acceleration near the top but Asgreen managed to claw his way back on for the Paterberg, where they rode up side-by-side before trading turns on the 13km run-in to the finish.
Many expected Asgreen to play games, using Florian Sénéchal in the chase group as an excuse to force Van der Poel to work, before hitting him with a long-range attack. But he contributed all the way to the final kilometre, leading himself to what many saw as his own slaughter.
In the eyes of Van der Poel, that warranted a great deal of respect.
"Asgreen is certainly the deserved winner. He never made a point of riding to the finish together. That says enough," Van der Poel said.
"He felt good. I certainly didn't think it was a done deal. In the sprint I could turn it on for five seconds, then it was just off. He is someone who dares to race and dares to continue to the finish, I like that."
With Paris-Roubaix postponed, this was the end of the spring campaign for Van der Poel, who won’t race on into the Ardennes and Amstel Gold Race, which he won in 2019. With Strade Bianche in the bag, plus podiums at E3 and Tour of Flanders, it has been a good spring, even if victory in Flanders would have made it a great one.
"For sure I can be proud of the races I did from the beginning of the season until now, but for sure I leave a bit disappointed," he concluded.
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