Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) was one of the riders in the spotlight at the Tour of Flanders. The 24-year-old was ever-present in the final 100km, even after a crash at 60km from the finish seemed to rule him out of the race. But Van der Poel bounced back and battled for the victory in his first Monument, where he finished fourth.
The move from eventual winner Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First) on the Oude Kwaremont slipped away from his attention and by the time the cyclo-cross world champion found out, it was no longer possible to bring him back. Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-QuickStep) jumped away towards second place in the final kilometres, and in the group sprint for third place, Van der Poel was beaten by Norwegian strongman Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates).
"Today I surprised myself," Van der Poel said to the press at the team bus. "I'm proud, rather than disappointed after today. In a way, it's a missed chance, but I'm very satisfied about today. Right now, I'm disappointed not to be on the podium. In hindsight, victory might've been possible too. In hindsight... that's always easy of course. I hoped I would finish on the podium but once again I miss out on that. Hopefully I can come back here to throw my hands up in the air."
Van der Poel said that Gent-Wevelgem felt like a harder race than the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Last week's fight against the wind and the race-long work in the long breakaway move clearly left a lasting impression on Van der Poel.
"In Gent-Wevelgem, we were racing all day long. That was my first long race. I felt I was improving every day. I showed that in Dwars door Vlaanderen. That's not the Ronde van Vlaanderen. I need the racing kilometres and the toughness of these races. I came through this race much better than the way I came through Gent-Wevelgem," Van der Poel said, while adding that it wasn't as if he wasn't feeling the pain on the bike.
"I was suffering as well but I was riding with morale. When you see there's 20km to go after such a pursuit, then you gain morale."
Everybody was trying to catch a glimpse of the popular Dutch rider. It's hard not to like his attractive racing style, as the huge amount of fans showed. During the cyclo-cross races, Van der Poel often showed off his technical skills. On the road, he's playing around with his bike, too. His crash in Berchem, just before the second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont climb happened when he tried to hop over a flower bed. A journalist asked if he wasn't acting reckless.
"I wasn't acting reckless," he said. "There was a gap there but someone else dived into it. I think I'm more of a cautious rider in the peloton if I see what some other riders are doing. I don't think I can be considered to be a reckless rider."
After hopping over the flower bed, Van der Poel punctured. While trying to slow down, he lifted his arm to request support from the team. That's when he hit something and crashed. "We were descending the Nieuwe Kwaremont. There was a gap but it closed down right in front of me. I wanted to jump over the flower bed and I was lucky my wheel didn't break into pieces over there.
"In that case, I would've crashed heavily over there. Eventually it did break when I rode into a small hole," Van der Poel said. At that moment, his chase for glory seemed over. "I didn't believe it was possible to get back in the race. In the descent of the Koppenberg, I managed to bridge back up. I probably spent my best bullet over there though I still felt good. It is morale-boosting when you start to overtake riders on the climbs. It was also a surprise for me to see that I was still able to fight along like I did at the Kwaremont and the Pater. Before the race, I simply hoped to reach the top of these climbs among the favourites."
Van der Poel did much more than that as he blasted up the final climb of the day, the Paterberg in the lead of the chase group. "I thought I reached the top of the Paterberg in the lead. I didn't see Bettiol ride away. They had to tell me afterwards. I saw it in the TV studio after the race. That's a pity," Van der Poel said.
When asked when he found out that Bettiol was alone in the lead, Van der Poel needed some time to think. "Probably at about five kilometres from the finish. Kristoff was constantly shouting seconds in my ear but I thought that was the gap we had on the chasers. It's only at that moment that I saw one rider ahead of us in the distance. There wasn't anything else I would do. I was banking on the sprint. QuickStep had a few riders and I know that Asgreen is fast so I thought they would ride for him but apparently not."
When asked how it was possible that he missed the move, let alone that the team car didn't inform him, Van der Poel referred to his own characteristics. "I was a bit too far to the back on the Oude Kwaremont. There's a lot of pushing going on ahead of the climbs. Maybe I'm a bit too lax. I felt good and figured I would ride to the front when it mattered. I really didn't notice it because I was among six or seven favourites on the Oude Kwaremont and thought I was in the perfect place."
Father Adrie van der Poel felt that his son showed that he was the strongest rider on Sunday, He managed to bounce back from a lost position and still climbed better than most other riders in the main group. Mathieu van der Poel seemed to share the same idea.
"Even with the crash, I think that I would've been able to go with Bettiol if I would've been more to the front of the group on the Oude Kwaremont. I just didn't see him go. The race would've been different so it doesn't make sense to keep thinking about what would've happened."
When looking beyond the Tour of Flanders, Van der Poel has a three more races on his schedule in the next two weeks. First, he'll race the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe - Pays de la Loire, then the Brabantse Pijl and in two weeks time he'll race the major Dutch classic of the year: Amstel Gold Race.
When he asked if he would be considered to be a top favourite at the Amstel Gold Race, Van der Poel laughed. "It's a completely different race. I hope so," Van der Poel said. Father Adrie was glad that his son wouldn't race Paris-Roubaix. "It’ll probably be harder for Mathieu to win the Brabantse Pijl. There’ll be different teams and different dynamics. It's good he'll be away from the media attention here to prepare for the races that should suit him the best: Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold Race.
"Although there’ll be media attention in France too. In the Netherlands, he's my son. In Belgium, he's made a big name for himself. In France, it's papie, his grandfather. He hasn't known anything else since he was a kid," Adrie van der Poel said.
Mathieu van der Poel might appear in a different kit at the start line. A journalist asked him how he felt about combining his Dutch tricolor jersey with white shorts. "Opinions are divided. It didn't bring me much luck today. I'll wear my black shorts in the Amstel."