We shouldn't be surprised. Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) seemingly deprived us of that emotion with his Amstel Gold Race victory back in April. Yet jaws hit the floor once again on Thursday as the Dutch phenom won the opening stage of the Arctic Race of Norway.
The victory in and of itself was impressive – a rip-roarer of a long-range sprint that took him past late attacker Steve Cummings and convincingly away from the rest of the 33-rider breakaway. What made it so special was that he had barely ridden a road bike in the best part of four months.
After Amstel capped an extraordinary debut spring classics campaign on the road for the rider, Van der Poel – who had become world cyclo-cross champion that winter – switched to his mountain bike, and carried on winning. He claimed three rounds of the prestigious cross-country World Cup, the latest coming just four days ago.
The 24-year-old, who's eyeing the Road World Championships in late September, warned he'd need time to adjust back to the road and to gain the endurance needed for races longer than an hour. Obviously not.
"I knew my shape was pretty good – otherwise you don't win a World Cup – but I'm still a bit surprised that I was feeling that good today," Van der Poel told reporters in Svolvaer after pulling on the yellow jersey as overall leader.
"I've been doing well on the mountain bike, but it was difficult to say whether I could do it in a long race as well. There were question marks about whether I could handle the distance, but I felt quite OK. It was full gas all day – I saw some numbers and could see it was hard – so I'm a bit surprised to have good legs at the end and to be able to do such a good sprint."
Van der Poel's sprint was, indeed, emphatic. Cummings was still out alone when he opened the taps from no fewer than 250 metres out. He caught him with just over 100m to go and continued to rip away from everyone else, to the extent that he had the time to look over his shoulder with 50m to go to check the gap before celebrating.
Danny Van Poppel, Andrea Pasqualon and Christophe Laporte, all established sprinters, could get nowhere near him. This was no typical bunch sprint, coming from a break of 33 on a day when there were a few hills and almost no let-up from kilometre zero, but the manner and margin of victory were still telling.
Above all, it was the long-range nature of the sprint that caught the eye. We'd already seen it at Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Amstel Gold Race, but this was further compelling evidence of Van der Poel's inclination to go from range and his ability to sustain a sprint.
"Most sprinters' problem – and I often say this when I watch on television – is that they always wait a bit too long," Van der Poel said.
"Then they're surprised when someone starts sprinting sooner. Today, that was the case. You have to dare and launch the sprint from a little bit further out. If you wait until the last 150 metres to sprint, it's difficult to win.
"I know perfectly where I can launch my sprint until the end. I don't know why some sprinters are always waiting that long, because I think it's better to try to do your own sprint rather than waiting for someone else to launch their sprint. I think I rode a perfect sprint today."
Ahead of the Arctic Race of Norway, Van der Poel insisted he was targeting a stage win but not the overall classification. The opening stage has emphatically swept aside those question marks over adjustment from mountain bike to road bike, but has not altered his focus – the chief obstacle being the stage 3 summit finish on Storheia (3.5km at 11.8 per cent).
"Normally, it should be a little bit too hard for me. There are a few strong climbers here, I noticed today already – especially Lutsenko. He was really strong, so I think he's the favourite for the GC," Van der Poel said.
"Of course I'm going to try to defend the jersey, but last year it was already too hard and this year the climbing is even harder."
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