Not since James Brown’s cape routine has performative exhaustion felt like such an integral part of the spectacle.
After winning in Visegrád on the opening day of the Giro d’Italia, Mathieu van der Poel collapsed on a heap of dead leaves beyond the finish line. After defending his maglia rosa in the time trial in Budapest on Saturday, he sat glassy eyed on the roadside, saliva dripping off his chin.
Another day, another show.
Van der Poel, it seems, can venture into places of pain where few others dare to tread, and then circle back and deliver a repeat performance the following day. In Visegrád, the Dutchman confessed that he had been too exhausted to raise his arms in celebration. Still, he recovered quickly enough to empty himself all over again in this 9.2km time trial across the Danube.
The sharp corners on the course seemed to lend themselves to Van der Poel’s gifts as a bike handler, and he rolled away from the start in Heroes’ Square with the eminently realisable ambition of retaining his maglia rosa. He exceeded his own expectations, however, by placing second on the stage, just three seconds down on Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco) and ahead of his fellow countryman Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma).
"Yeah, for sure I would have signed for this before," Van der Poel said. "I think I did a really good time trial and of course the difference between winning and second was pretty close today. But I got myself an extra day in the pink jersey so I think I can be quite happy."
This Giro d'Italia is the second Grand Tour of Van der Poel’s career, and it feels increasingly like a mirror of his first. At last year’s Tour de France, the Alpecin-Fenix rider seized the maillot jaune after winning at Mur de Bretagne and then defied expectations by defending the lead in the Laval time trial three days later.
Here, he carries a lead of 11 seconds over Yates into stage 3, and it seems most likely that he will still be in pink when the Giro re-starts in Sicily on Tuesday.
"I knew it was possible to keep the jersey, and I believed more in it than I did in the Tour de France time trial, for example, so I’m happy to wear the jersey also in a normal stage tomorrow," said Van der Poel.
"The best time triallists are not here. I knew it would already be really good to keep the jersey - that was the big goal - but to be this close to the stage win is maybe better than I expected. It’s a discipline I don’t really spend a lot of time on, so I think I can be happy."
Taking pink to Italy
The earlier finishers on Saturday afternoon suggested that the course was a particularly technical one, with Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Qazaqstan) highlighting how the test demanded a succession of sharp accelerations rather than a single, sustained effort.
Van der Poel, however, gently deflated the idea that the endeavour here bore any resemblance to that of a cyclo-cross race. Then again, Van der Poel’s definition of ‘technical’ may be more exacting than that of the rest of the peloton.
"Not really, because in my opinion, there were only a few corners where you had to use technique," said Van der Poel. "The rest was pretty fast, actually. I also felt pretty ok on the longer stretches today. I think it was a nice course."
Van der Poel had the third-best split at the time check on the west bank of the Danube River after 7.9km, just over half a second down on Yates and a fraction off Dumoulin. He would prove quicker than Dumoulin on the short climb to the line that followed, and he came close to breaking even with the flying Yates.
"I think I could maybe even have done a bit better, but that’s always easy to say afterwards. I think especially in the beginning I took it a bit too easy because I didn’t want to take too many risks on the corners, but I think everybody would say the same," said Van der Poel, who raced with little knowledge of his rivals’ splits.
"The radio wasn’t turned up loud enough with all the crowds, so I couldn’t really hear what they were saying."
At last year’s Tour, Van der Poel’s tenure in the yellow jersey lasted until the race hit the Alps at the end of the first week. At this Giro, Tuesday’s summit finish atop Mount Etna will likely spell the end of his tenure in the maglia rosa.
In the meantime, he has a shot at another stage win in Balatonfüred on Sunday afternoon, though he suggested that he would pass up the opportunity and instead serve as a rather deluxe gregario for Jakub Mareczko.
"Tomorrow I will be the lead out for Mareczko, he will be our sprinter here," Van der Poel insisted.
No matter, the pink jersey still ought to be in his suitcase when the race leaves for Sicily on Monday morning.
"Normally until Etna it should be possible to keep the jersey," he said. "But then I will lose it."
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Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.
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