Mathieu van der Poel has compared the pressure and expectation for the opening stages of this year's Tour de France to that of a major Classic like the Tour of Flanders, indicating he is able to handle it all and fight for victory on Saturday's opening stage on the uphill finish in Landerneau.
If Van der Poel manages to win the stage and so take the first yellow jersey -something his late grandfather Raymond Poulidor never did, despite finishing second three times - it would create a hugely symbolic and emotional moment for the Duchman and for the 2021 Tour de France.
Van der Poel and his Alpecin-Fenix team remembered Poulidor by wearing a special purple and amber jersey for Thursday's teams presentation, replicating the look of his iconic Mercier team, with Van der Poel also posing just like his his grandfather on the bonnet of an old team car.
Despite all the expectations, Van der Poel's talents seemingly allow him to brush off the pressure and enjoy the biggest moments of his career.
"It’s something special if you can wear the yellow jersey once in your career and it would be even nicer if my grandfather was still here to see it. I would have loved to be in the Tour start village with him but I’m a bit too late for that to happen. But I’m just going to try and enjoy it all and go for stage victories," Van der Poel said in his pre-race press conference early on Friday morning.
"I don’t feel there’s more pressure than before the big Classics races. We can compare it all to, say, the Tour of Flanders and I assume it will also be similar tactics. Here there will also be some GC guys who want to be at the front and not lose time.
"There’s a lot to win in the first two stages and a lot of riders are focused on them, also because there’s a yellow attached to the first stage win."
Alpecin-Fenix are staying in Landerneau in the build-up to the Tour de France Grand Départ and so have seen the final climb. Like others, Van der Poel was surprised by just how hard it is.
"The first stage should suit me very well but it’s harder than it looks, so I’ll have to be on top of my game to try to win on a finish like this," he said, with a rare hint of doubt.
"We rode the last 30km of the stage on Thursday and it’s a really hard stage. There’s a good three kilometres of climbing and it never goes flat entirely. It’s steep at the start, above 10 per cent in parts.
"I’m going to try to do everything I can to try to win a stage, if it’s the first one or the second it’d be very nice. But this is my first Tour and I’m also here to discover the Grand Tours. For sure I’ll go for it but it’s not going to be easy."
All the Tour de France peloton was forced to train in the rain on Friday after grey skies and rain replaced the summer blue skies and late sunsets of Brittany. Drier conditions are expected on Saturday, which will reduce the risk of crashes during the stage and especially on the high-speed run-in and battle for position before the final climb.
Van der Poel would love to race the stage like a Classic and go on the attack earlier so a small group can fight for victory. The 197km stage includes five other categorised climbs and plenty more undulations but Van der Poel is expecting the peloton to swarm to the foot of the final climb, fighting for position at the front.
"I hope there will be other stages which are like a Classic and we race from 50km from the finish, it would be good for the spectators but tomorrow is different," Van de Poel warned.
"The last five kilometres before the climb are really fast and downhill, so it’s impossible to stay away from a bunch. There’s a lot of different scenarios that can be played out there and different riders who can make their moves. I think it’ll be very interesting to watch."
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