After his spell in yellow in the Tour de France in 2021 and in pink in the Giro d'Italia this May, Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) has played down his chances of returning to the maillot jaune this July.
Last July, Van der Poel's stage win in the first week and his lengthy spell in yellow, an achievement with major emotional links to his late grandfather Raymond Poulidor, who never wore the maillot jaune, was one of the most emblematic moments of the entire Tour de France.
But despite taking fifth in last year's mid-week time trial and maintaining the overall lead by a scant but sufficient eight seconds over Tadej Pogačar, Van der Poel was doubtful about his chances of grabbing his third Grand Tour lead in just over a year on Friday, and notably cautious about whether he could do so later in the race.
"If I can put myself in the top ten and do a good time trial, for example, then maybe it'll be possible in the days afterward to get the yellow jersey later in the race," he told reporters on Thursday. "But it's going to be more difficult than last year."
Despite having the power output to go for time trial wins, something which placed him in multiple top tens throughout the year, Van der Poel said the technological battle was now on a level and so demanding time-wise that it was all but impossible for him to get on terms with the top names in that particular discipline.
"To be really with the best you have to get a lot of marginal gains and be really busy throughout the year," he said. "[You have to] really go for that ultimate aero' position and that's not the case in my setup now."
"But along the way, we've made a few steps to get it better and that showed already in the results. But to beat the specialists? That's not something I believe in."
Among those 'few steps', of course, is the £2,750 skinsuit provided by Czech and British companies Kalas and Vorteq for the Denmark TT. There were also unconfirmed reports of a trip to Silverstone wind tunnel in the UK.
Van der Poel did say that he was a fan of time trialling, but argued that it was "beginning to look like Formula One in some aspects. You have to have the latest tech, the best aero' position to even get a chance of winning. Power output alone is not enough any more and that makes it quite a cool aspect of the sport, I guess."
Having just won the opening stage of the Giro d'Italia then taken part in multiple breakaways in the second and third week, Van der Poel has now completed his first Grand Tour. And he recognised that both his racing experience in Italy and his warm-hearted relationship with the tifosi, which included wheelies on the Stelvio and longstanding online jokes about his predilection for pineapple on pizzas, could act as a kind of inspiration for how he would tackle the 2022 Tour de France.
"I hope I will enjoy myself as much as I did in the Giro, for me that was a nice Grand Tour to finish and hopefully I can do that in the same way here. If I can also get a stage win that would be really nice."
As he could witness in Hungary and Italy in the Giro, the mood and atmosphere on the roadsides has changed considerably this year, and this was notable at Copenhagen's team presentation, Van der Poel argued. However, while motivating, it was never enough to turn out a top-level performance in itself.
"It will help a bit, although it's the legs that have to do it. In general, the atmosphere, like yesterday, is very different and for us riders that makes it more enjoyable with a lot of people. It gives another dynamic to the race."
As for that skinsuit, Van der Poel said that he had yet to actually try it on or even see it. "I was in Livigno [training at altitude], so they've prepared it for me, they were trying to develop their own TT suit. So I guess it's all about the specific small details and if you can win a few seconds with that, you have to try it I guess."
The test run with the skinsuit will come this afternoon when Van der Poel heads out to the 13.2 kilometre time trial course in Denmark. "We're trying a few new things, specially on the handlebars," he specified. He thought the Denmark course was similarly technical to the Hungary TT in the Giro d'Italia, where he took second behind Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco), which would give him something of an advantage, and with the final climb, "I could limit the damage."
Van der Poel had said that he wanted to finish a Grand Tour in order to improve as a rider, but with no racing between the Giro and the Tour he has had no opportunity yet to put that to a live test. In terms of training though, the 27-year-old was not so certain he could see a positive benefit.
"Not specifically, there have been no changes yet. After the Giro I rested for a week and it was a bit hard to get back in training mood. But then the last two weeks I started to feel better and better and I'm looking forward to my next Grand Tour this year."
Two Grand Tours, one season
Form-wise, his condition was "similar to when I started the Giro, although I've got more race days now in the legs so hopefully that's strengthened me a bit, so I can show some nice things."
In terms of priorities for the 2022 race and how he will tackle it compared to 2021, Van der Poel said that 12 months ago, the aims were markedly different. "Back then the first two days and taking the yellow were the big goals and succeeding at that, maybe this year it's a bit less of a stress factor. If I lose 10 or 15 seconds, which would be a good result, maybe I can try something until the Roubaix stage. A time trial hurts anyway so let's see what we can do." As stated earlier in the week, the idea of trying green jersey, in any case, remains ruled out, with stage wins the overriding objective.
Outside setpiece results, his aims, he said, "are not that different to what I was discovering in the Giro. I had the confirmation that I was pretty ok in the third week, which was the only small question mark we had of course, and now maybe there's a small one again, because we don't know how my body will react after having one Grand Tour. "
"But I feel quite ok and I think I'm ready to show I can do some good things. Like in the Giro, I prefer to be in a big breakaway than in the bunch all day, so if it's possible, I'll be up there as well."
And last but not least, too, there could be teamwork as well for Van der Poel. As he put it, "We'll take it on the day by day, but for sure if I feel ok, if there is a bunch sprint, I will be up there for Jasper [Stuyven] in the leadout on the flat stages."
But first, in any case, will come Friday's TT in Copenhagen, and how Van der Poel fares on the opening stage of his second Tour de France, and for all his somewhat lowkey approach, interest in his performance will surely be as high as it was in Budapest TT, or higher.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.