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'Practically unbeatable' – Mathieu van der Poel lives up to billing at Giro d'Italia

Mathieu van der Poel celebrates winning stage 1 and taking the first leader's jersey at the Giro d'Italia
Mathieu van der Poel celebrates winning stage 1 and taking the first leader's jersey at the Giro d'Italia (Image credit: Getty Images)

The citadel of Visegrád lent itself to a coronation, and so it proved. Mathieu van der Poel was the outstanding favourite to win stage 1 of the Giro d’Italia and he duly conjured up a sprint of overwhelming force to take the first maglia rosa of the race.

Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert) put up fierce resistance in the final 100 metres, but the result was only fleetingly in doubt. Or, as Van der Poel’s teammate Dries De Bondt put it afterwards: “Mathieu, when he can choose his own moment in a finish like this, he’s practically unbeatable.”

The 5km-long drag to the line on the banks of the Danube could have been designed expressly with Van der Poel in mind, and he is not given to turning down such invitations. “If they give you an opportunity like this, you have to take it,” added De Bondt, whose Alpecin-Fenix squad had looked to guide their leader as far as the final 500 metres.

Van der Poel had an array of weapons at his disposal on a finale such as this, but there was never any question about what he would deploy here. From the outset, the plan was for Van der Poel to save his raw power for the sprint rather than try to unleash it earlier on the climb.

“It’s not really steep, eh, you have an advantage with the draft. If you go too early and the other guys have some teammates left, then you fuck yourself,” De Bondt explained. “You have to wait as long as you can and then choose the right moment… And I think Mathieu knows better than anyone when to choose it.”

Van der Poel certainly did here, tracking the dangerman Girmay in the closing metres and then gradually outmatching the Eritrean as the Arrivo banner reared into view.

“The final kilometre was quite OK, I think,” Van der Poel said after taking a seat in the mixed zone, the pink jersey on his shoulders. “It was more before that I got boxed in a few times and I had to go around to regain position. That used up a bit of energy, but in the end, I still had enough energy left for the sprint.”

The Dutchman had already struck for home by the time Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) crashed after clipping Girmay’s wheel within sight of the line, and the Australian was not going to recoup the ground at that late juncture. “I didn’t see him crashing,” he said. “I didn’t feel the strongest, but I think everybody was just suffering and in the end, I managed to take the win.”

Time trial

Van der Poel’s style is not as economical as that of his great rival Wout van Aert, but there is still a curious kind of grace about the way his every sinew seems to strain in a sprint, like a Boccioni sculpture made flesh. This effort was perhaps not a masterpiece like his outsmarting of Tadej Pogačar at the Tour of Flanders or his onslaught at Mur-de-Bretagne on last year’s Tour de France, but it was a weighty addition to his oeuvre all the same.

“It’s pretty special. I didn’t really have the chance to celebrate on the finish line because I had to dig so deep, but for sure I’ll realise what I’ve done in a few hours with my team,” said Van der Poel, who adds the maglia rosa to the yellow jersey he wore at last year’s Tour.

That occasion had deeper connotations for Van der Poel, as he could dedicate the achievement to his late grandfather Raymond Poulidor, who had never worn the maillot jaune during his long relationship with the Tour. The Giro doesn’t carry quite the same resonance, but Van der Poel will hope to echo at least some of the experience by defending his lead in Saturday’s 9km time trial in Budapest.

Last July, after all, Van der Poel defied the odds by fending off Pogačar to retain the yellow jersey after the stage 5 time trial to Laval. On Saturday, Van der Poel will roll down the start ramp with 14 seconds in hand on the bulk of the established time triallists in the race.

“In the Tour I didn’t expect to keep the yellow after the time trial so I’ll try to surprise myself again tomorrow,” said Van der Poel, who will hope the kick from the Danube up to the finish in the heart of Buda will play to his favour.

“I saw a bit of the parcours for tomorrow and there are quite a few turns and it’s hilly in the end. I’ll see the parcours properly in the recon tomorrow morning and then I can say a bit more about it, but I’ll try to keep the jersey.”

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Barry Ryan

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.