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Van der Poel: I could prepare the way I wanted for Tour of Flanders

Mathieu Van Der Poel
Mathieu van der Poel at the Coppi e Bartali (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Whatever the outcome at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) won't be leaning on his truncated build-up to the Classics as an explanation. Treatment for a long-standing back injury delayed the start of his road season until Milan-San Remo just ten days ago, but he already looked to be hitting top speed during his time in Italy, starting with third place on the Via Roma.

Last Friday afternoon, just as his eternal rival Wout van Aert was in the process of annexing the E3 Saxo Bank Classic 1,300km to the north, Van der Poel offered a further reminder of his own Ronde credentials by winning stage 4 of the Settimana Coppi e Bartali in Montecatini.

Barely a fortnight ago, it wasn't entirely clear whether Van der Poel would even race the cobbled Classics at all, but on Wednesday, he begins his northern campaign as the favourite to win Dwars door Vlaanderen, where Van Aert is an absentee. Speaking to reporters on the eve of the race, he extolled the surprising virtues of his deferred start to the 2022 season.

"I think it's maybe been one of my best preparations. I could prepare myself the way I wanted to and not start racing immediately after the cyclo-cross season," said Van der Poel, who spent most of February and early March training in the hinterland of Alicante.

"I feel pretty good with the preparation I did. It still has to pay off, of course, but I felt good already during the races I've done, so that proves it was a good preparation. It was a bit shorter than I would have liked, but I think it's been really good."

For years, received wisdom said that a steady diet of racing in February and March was de rigueur as preparation for the Classics. Van der Poel, however, suggested that riders could now sink equally durable foundations in training, citing the example of Van Aert's victory on his first road outing of 2022 at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

"That's a bit the new cycling, I think," Van der Poel said. "We already saw with Van Aert, for example, that he is always very strong in his first race coming off altitude training. He also won Omloop like that, so it's possible. And also with Coppi e Bartali, I think I should now be at the level."

Van der Poel downplayed the idea that his extended time away from racing had provided him with a welcome mental break – "I don't know if it was good mentally. It was not a nice period" – but he acknowledged that it had offered a lesson in the value of devoting time to areas he had previously neglected.

"I especially learned that I have to focus a lot on stability and fitness exercises, that's maybe a thing that was a bit in the background in the last years because I had to switch disciplines a few times and I didn't have the time to do these exercises," said Van der Poel. "I even ride one hour less on the bike just to do my exercises now."

Pogačar and Van Aert

Van Aert, flanked by a Jumbo-Visma squad of remarkable strength, is the favourite to win the Tour of Flanders following his victories at Omloop and the E3 Saxo Bank Classic, as well as his striking show of force on the Kemmelberg at Gent-Wevelgem. Van der Poel saw only snatches of those races, but then television footage was never going to teach anything he didn't already know about his old sparring partner, who skips Dwars door Vlaanderen.

"I watched a few parts of the races but I was busy myself, racing or training or doing some exercises most of the time, but for sure I saw some bits of it and they look really strong this year," said Van der Poel, who will also face a new rival on the cobbles this year in Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates).

The Tour de France champion makes his debut in the Flemish Ardennes at Dwars door Vlaanderen before chasing his third Monument victory in under a year at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday. On the evidence of his ferocious onslaught on the Poggio at Milan-San Remo, it is clear that Pogačar has not come to Belgium as a tourist.

"I don't know why he is doing these races, but we have seen he is capable in everything he does, so I think he's someone we have to pay attention to in the upcoming races," said Van der Poel.

Three years ago, when Van der Poel was still a neophyte in this genre of racing, he claimed his first landmark road victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen before placing 4th in the Ronde the following weekend.

"It was important, it was my first WorldTour win and it was also a really nice race because I attacked from distance with a teammate and finished it off in a sprint. Those are good memories," said Van der Poel, though he added that the race would provide few firm indications for what is to follow at the weekend. "No, because last year I was dropped on the Côte de Trieu and I went on to do a good Tour of Flanders, so it doesn't have any impact on Sunday for me."

Nor, it seems, do Van der Poel's two most recent experiences at the Ronde, which both culminated in two-up sprints. In the pandemic-delayed edition of 2020, he pipped Van Aert to the line in Oudenaarde, but last April, he surprisingly lost out to Kasper Asgreen.

"If you can ride to the finish in contention for the win like that, you've already done a good race," Van der Poel said. "It's a bit of a special sprint because it's the strongest who wins rather than the fastest. But if I could be in a position like that again on Sunday, it's already good."

 

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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 (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.