Van der Poel reverts to default setting at Giro d'Italia

Mathieu van der Poel on the attack on stage 8 of the Giro d'Italia
Mathieu van der Poel on the attack on stage 8 of the Giro d'Italia (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The shackles are off. After racing with a hitherto unseen degree of caution during the Spring Classics as he nursed his way back from injury, Mathieu van der Poel already appears to have reverted to his default setting on the Giro d'Italia. Van der Poel's more measured approach carried him to victory at the Tour of Flanders – against Tadej Pogacar, no less – but this Giro has marked a return to his previous all-action style.

"My preparation for the Classics was good but not as I wanted, so I had to race a bit smart," Van der Poel told reporters in Montesilvano on Monday's rest day. "But if I can, I try to race on instinct, and I will try to do that as well in the second and third week."

Already aggressive in the opening phase of the demanding day to Potenza on stage 7, the Dutchman threw himself on the offensive from the very beginning of the following day's breathless leg around Naples. That onslaught bordered on the reckless, but Van der Poel barely relented all afternoon. Although he had to settle for 7th when the dust settled on Via Caracciolo, he insisted that he had no regrets about his unsparing efforts.

"The only thing that was a bit a pity was that I didn't have a teammate in this group, it would have made it a lot easier," he said. "We discussed it as a team afterwards. For sure, it was a missed opportunity for me and for the team as well, but I don't regret it. I really enjoyed it. It's how I like to race. It's not the result that I wanted or that the team wanted, but I don't regret it."

Van der Poel's disappointment was evident on the Neapolitan waterfront that afternoon, and he appeared to issue a cryptic criticism of Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert) after the stage. In response to a headline that quoted Girmay as saying "Everyone looked at Mathieu and me," Van der Poel tweeted a laughing emoji. On Monday, however, he downplayed the idea that he had been frustrated at being heavily marked by his breakaway companions.

"For sure, they have the right to react. I was one of the favourites that day and so it's also logical that if I go, they react," Van der Poel said. "But if you only react to one person and then another group goes, then you also can't win the race. But it's a bit of a difficult situation and that's why having a teammate up there would have made a big difference."

Into the Marche

The rest day press conference began with confirmation that Van der Poel's Alpecin-Fenix squad would seek WorldTour status from 2023, while their budget will increase accordingly with Deceuninck replacing Fenix as a title sponsor from this year's Tour de France. Van der Poel will, of course, be central to Alpecin's July plans, but he reiterated his intention to go the distance at this Giro and complete a Grand Tour for the first time.

"Last year was just a strange year with the corona situation and the Olympics," said Van der Poel, who abandoned the Tour after wearing yellow for most of the opening week. "It was hard to combine the Tour and the Olympics in mountain biking, but for sure I want to go to the end this time."

As at the Tour, Van der Poel made a fast start to this Giro, winning the opening stage and then defending his maglia rosa by placing a fine second in the following afternoon's time trial in Budapest, before eventually conceding the lead at Mount Etna on stage 4. He will have more opportunities to shine in a second week largely devoid of high mountains.

Tuesday's hilly run up the Adriatic coast from Pescara to Jesi brings the Giro into something akin to Van der Poel country, with a series of short, sharp climbs in the latter part of the stage that seem to lend themselves to his talents.

Indeed, Van der Poel has already won twice in the Marche at Tirreno-Adriatico. In 2020, he powered to victory in Loreto, while last year, he produced a remarkable solo exhibition at Castelfidardo, though he flew too close to the sun in the process and was almost caught by Pogacar at the last.

"I haven't been there in the second and third week of a Grand Tour, but the racing style changes a bit and sometimes you get an opportunity from an early breakaway with a bigger group," said Van der Poel. "I think the stage tomorrow is something that should be possible, and then after tomorrow we'll see how it goes."

The second week is punctuated by two days for the sprinters, at Reggio Emilia on stage 11 and in Cuneo on stage 13. Although teammate Jakub Mareczko has already left the Giro, Van der Poel intimated that he would not be tempted into the fray. "Maybe in the third week, but for now, I'll try to pick the stages where the race is a bit harder," he said. "Pure bunch sprints are not really my favourite thing to do."

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Barry Ryan
Head of Features

Barry Ryan is Head of Features 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.