Mathieu van der Poel has often seemed capable of doing anything he wants, when he wants, but the Dutchman appeared human on Wednesday, with a Dwars door Vlaanderen performance that raises question marks ahead of the Tour of Flanders.
Unlike World Champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Van der Poel was present and correct when the race exploded on the Taaienberg, but quickly understood he was not on a good day.
An attempt to attack from the chase group behind solo leader and eventual winner Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers) quickly faded to nothing, and he fell away entirely when the race ignited again on the Knoketeberg with 36km to go.
"I blocked completely there,” he said, according to Het Nieuwsblad and Sporza. “It wasn't going well before that either. I was on the limit for a while. I had already told my teammates and the team management that today would not be my day.
"I certainly didn't play hide and seek or comedy. I have never done that. I would have preferred to race to win, but that was just not possible with my legs."
After the Knoketeberg, Van der Poel settled back into the main bunch and even kept pulling as Alpecin-Fenix changed tack and looked to set up a sprint for Tim Merlier. Although Van Baarle stayed away, he helped catch the chasing groups, and almost ground to a halt when the junction was made, crossing the line alone.
"Fortunately, I managed to close the gap to the chasing group and the peloton for Tim. He eventually sprinted to third place and that is a positive point," Van der Poel said.
The performance will naturally raise doubts about Van der Poel's form and status ahead of the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, though he seemed unconcerned.
It's worth pointing out that others were in the same boat - notably Alaphilippe and his Deceuninck-QuickStep teammates Kasper Asgreen, Yves Lampaert, and Davide Ballerini. The unusually clement conditions, with temperatures of 17 degrees Celsius, seemed to hold some back, although Van der Poel wasn't convinced the heat was to blame.
"Was it the heat? I ate and drank enough in the race. I didn't find my legs. By the way, Alaphilippe also told me in the race that he was not feeling very well. I couldn't go deep all day.
“I can deal with this. It has happened to me before. I expect a different race on Sunday, and I hope to be very good on Sunday."
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