After a thrilling final 40 kilometres of the Tour of Flanders, it was Alpecin-Fenix rider Mathieu van der Poel who threw his front wheel a few centimetres ahead of that of his arch-rival, Jumbo-Visma's Wout van Aert at the finish line in Oudenaarde, earning him his first-ever win in one of cycling's Monuments.
Van der Poel's win comes 34 years after the win of his father Adrie Van der Poel, and 57 years after a top-10 from grandfather Raymond Poulidor, who passed away last year.
"This win turns an average season into a super season. With fans it would’ve been even nicer. This surely is one of the biggest wins in my career, especially because of the way I won," Van der Poel said in the post-race press conference.
The Tour of Flanders sprint battle comes after Van der Poel and Van Aert had a war of words after ruining each other's race in Gent-Wevelgem last weekend.
Through their careers so far, the duo have fought out countless battles, from the smallest races in the youth categories to countless cyclo-cross races, all the way up to Sunday, sprinting alongside each other for the win at this season’s biggest pavé Classic.
"It was incredible to sprint for the victory in De Ronde, knowing where we both come from," Van der Poel said.
"Actually, it was one of the first times that we had to sprint with the two of us, as even in ‘cross it hasn’t happened a lot."
Having built a gap of 1:15 by the final climb of Paterberg, the pair entered the final kilometre with a bonus of 40 seconds over a large chase group. Van der Poel was forced into the lead as they rode under the kilometre banner, setting a slow pace as he kept an eye on Van Aert.
The chase group wasn't slowing down, but the two leaders didn't seem to care and rode like experienced track riders. At 200 metres from the finish, the sprint of titans commenced.
"When heading for the finish, I thought about choosing the right gear and the right distance to launch my sprint," said Van der Poel.
"The fact that he was waiting for a very long time showed that he was no longer at 100 per cent, either; that boosted my confidence.
"Throughout the day, I felt like he was stronger. He wasn’t attacking on the Kwaremont and the Paterberg so it was clear that he was on the limit. It was obvious to me that we would head for the finish with the two of us. I was determined to ride the sprint of my life.
"The low speed was in my advantage. My trump card in the sprint is the first five seconds of acceleration. On a small gear I reach my peak values more easily. I also managed to launch my sprint a fraction of a second before he started. I shifted up two or three times and then threw my bike forward.
"The finish line was suddenly there. There were several lines actually. I didn’t know if I had won. Normally I watch my wheel when I cross the line but I had nothing left in the tank to do that. It’s unbelievable."
Media exaggerations and future planning
While riding to the post-race press conference, Mathieu van der Poel told his soigneur that his front wheel was damaged.
"I hit a sidewalk in the run-up to the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont," Van der Poel told Cyclingnews, laughing when referring to last year's similar incident that ruined his race.
Apart from the incident, Van der Poel had a flawless run-up to the finale.
"It was close to perfection," he said of his Alpecin-Fenix team's performance. "I was always delivered into the right position at the crucial points. I'll have to come up with a nice gift for them."
Television images shortly after the finish line showed despair and then the sheer delight of the 25 year-old Dutch champion when he realised he had won the Tour of Flanders. He threw himself into the arms of his girlfriend Roxanne Bertels.
The live feed didn’t pick up what happened right after the finish line: a hug between Van der Poel and Van Aert.
"What happened last week was exaggerated by the media," Van der Poel said of his 'spat' with Van Aert.
"Back then, he had the legs to win. I had already started racing at 70 kilometres from the finish on the Plugstreets; if you only watch the final kilometres, well... I’m not racing to piss off other riders."
The comparison with Van Aert will probably be made for the rest of their careers, although Van der Poel likes to point out that they follow different trajectories: Van Aert works for GC riders at the Tour de France, while Van der Poel also races mountain bikes.
"Wout rode a Grand Tour, which makes you stronger on the road. For me, mountain biking is super important," he said.
The 25-year-old's biggest goal this season was the cross-country race at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but COVID-19 ruined his planned schedule.
"I had a hard time to get into form ever since the coronavirus was a factor. We quickly decided to aim solely at the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix. Since the training camp in Livigno [in September], I was back at my level," he said.
"People don’t realise that I had to reschedule a lot because of the changing racing calendar, and that I actually rode a lot of races that don’t fit me too well. For example, I finished 10th at Il Lombardia, which was a great result for me, but to the outer world seemed disappointing.
"The two weeks before this week, I did a lot of big efforts, and as a result I wasn't super in Gent-Wevelgem. This week I didn’t do anything, really."
As for the future, Van der Poel is scheduled to race the Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne on Wednesday before ending his road season. He will certainly head back to cyclo-cross during the Christmas period, but he doesn’t know what will follow.
This year, Van der Poel switched focus from mountain biking to road cycling, and as a result has lost his good ranking and the resulting good start position.
"Nobody knows what the future will bring. It's been a really hard year. Not only for cyclists but for everybody. For me, I found it difficult with the mountain biking changes.
"I had a strict schedule towards Tokyo and then the Tour de France in the following year. Now it looks like it'll all fall together. I haven't been racing on my mountain bike for almost a year. That's spinning through my head."
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