For the second time this season Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) started a race claiming that his intentions were to leading out his sprinting teammates only for the Dutch rider to go on the offensive with a long-range attack that almost saw him pull off a jaw-dropping win.
Just like on the opening stage of the UAE Tour when van der Poel split the race in the crosswinds before winning, he launched an audacious attack with 83km to go in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on Sunday. Only a frantic chase from the remnants of the field would deny the Tour of Flanders winner in his first race back since leaving UAE due to a positive COVID-19 test within his team ranks, with the Dutchman caught with less than 2km to go.
When van der Poel attacked on the Kanarieberg he was quickly joined by Jhonatan Narvaez (Ineos Grenadiers) and the pair quickly established a lead of almost a minute on the peloton. The duo raced towards the early break and made contact on the Oude Kwaremont with around 60km to go and even after a frantic chase in the closing stages it looked as though van der Poel, Narvaez, Jonas Iversby Hvideberg, Patrick Gamper, and Artyom Zakharov would last the distance
The quintet held a fluctuating lead that hovered around 30 seconds as the race dipped into the final 10 kilometres but despite several last-ditch pulls from the Alpecin rider the pressure from the chase proved too great with Kasper Asgreen almost singlehandedly closing the gap inside the final kilometres.
Mads Pedersen (Trek Segafredo), who was on van der Poel's wheel when he attacked, would eventually win the race in a sprint finish with van der Poel forced to settle for 12th on the line.
“That was the goal for me today, to make it a hard race and to put our sprinters in the back in a good position but I went a bit earlier than expected but I thought that I would join a group after the Kwaremont with some big names but it didn’t really happen,” van der Poel said at the finish.
“It was really hard to go to the finish line with five guys, of which three were already in the early breakaway but I think that it wasn’t bad. We almost managed.”
Van der Poel wasn’t even meant to be in Kuurne and only made the last-minute decision to race after the COVID case in the UAE. That said, he almost away with a major one-day win, but admitted that the sprint finish was a bridge too far as several riders were able to shelter in the chase group before unleashing their sprints.
“I didn’t really have a clean line in the sprint but for sure if you ride 80km already there are going to be some fast guys who are coming from behind. So it’s not that I’m disappointed that I don’t sprint anymore.”
Van der Poel’s next outing will come at Le Samyn on March 2 before he heads to Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo. When asked if he thought that his recent form would set him up for the major one-day races that lay ahead, he responded: “I hope so. I like to race attractively and I enjoyed myself today.”
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