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Van der Poel takes Tour de France yellow jersey in honour of grandfather Poulidor

Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) in the Tour de France leader's jersey
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) in the Tour de France leader's jersey (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

When Mathieu van der Poel crossed the finish line of stage 2 of the Tour de France with a single right forefinger pointing skywards, it was hardly necessary to ask to whom the Alpecin-Fenix racer was dedicating both the stage win and, above all, the yellow jersey.

The Dutchman's grandfather, the late Raymond Poulidor, was one of the Tour's champions for many years, yet never wore the maillot jaune. But on Sunday atop the summit of the Mûr-de-Bretagne, the 26-year-old succeeded both in honouring his grandfather's memory and, in a sense, setting the family record straight.

For many French fans, there could hardly have been a more appropriate successor to local hero Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) than Poulidor's grandson as the wearer of the yellow jersey. And taking it on a climb as emblematic as the Mûr-de-Bretagne, deep in France's cycling heartland, was a hugely suitable setting, too.

For Van der Poel, taking the jersey and soloing to a stage win with an impressive double attack would surely have eclipsed his disappointment at having missed out on Saturday on a similar summit finish. But apart from Saturday's setback, another question making that target even more pressing was, as he pointed out afterwards, that "today was my last chance to take yellow."

The emotion of the moment for Van der Poel was palpable as he first collapsed to the ground after the finish and then was in tears before his first TV interview. Throughout all the protocol ceremonies and media obligations that followed, for the media and the stage winner and Tour leader, there was no getting away from the symbolism and the emotions of the moment - to the point where Van der Poel smiled a little wryly when one journalist asked him to describe his feelings about taking yellow in as much detail as possible, urging him to "take five minutes or more."

"It's unbelievable," he said, "You always dream for a scenario like this to work out, but for it to happen is unbelievable.

"The first time over the Mûr-de-Bretagne I attacked to try and get the bonus because I knew that was the only way to get the yellow jersey. Also, today was my last chance to try and get it.

"I knew I had to win the stage, but not only that to get yellow - I had to do so with enough of a gap to be sure of that. I'm speechless it managed to work out," added Van der Poel.

"The emotions really hit me when I was told for sure that I had the yellow jersey. It's very special to be able to do that on my first Tour."

Raymond Poulidor was a huge supporter of Mathieu van der Poel, pictured here in 2016 after the Cyclo-cross World Cup in Lignieres-en-Berry

Raymond Poulidor was a huge supporter of Mathieu van der Poel, pictured here in 2016 after the Cyclo-cross World Cup in Lignieres-en-Berry (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The question of what taking yellow meant for his family and what it would have meant to his grandfather, in particular, was impossible to avoid and Van der Poel answered it himself. 

"I imagine [if] he's here, it would have been quite a photo of him wearing his Credit Lyonnais jersey" - for whom Poulidor worked for many years at the Tour, invariably clad in the company's yellow colours to greet those who came to see him at the bank's publicity stand in the village depart - "and me in this one. So it's hard he's not here."

Van der Poel's blistering performance on the Mûr-de-Bretagne stood in stark contrast with his below-expectations ride on the Saturday at the first summit finish of the Tour, and he explained that difference by saying straightforwardly: "I felt a lot better. Maybe it was the stress, but I didn't have the legs I wanted and today I could go for it.

"It was the second day of the race, too, and harder than yesterday, so everybody was maybe a bit less fresh. It was a bit harder with two climbs, so maybe that was better for positioning. In any case, I'm incredibly happy."

If taking the lead was a hugely emotional moment, Van der Poel was 100 per cent hard-headed about how long he could be able to defend the lead. 

"The realistic option is until the time trial [on Wednesday], not longer," he said. Van der Poel's team will obviously be instrumental in that objective and he thanked them, too, for their help in the build-up to his attacking with 700 metres to go. "They sometimes believe in me even more than myself, and I will have to thank them one by one," he reflected.

He was equally pragmatic about whether he would do the Tour de France in full or indeed try for the green jersey, or if he would pull out beforehand to head for Tokyo to try for gold in the Olympic Mountain Bike event. 

"For sure I'd love to go to Paris, but I don't want to ruin my chances of some good results in Japan. I think going for the green [jersey] is too hard, in any case, because it'd mean going deep every day. Maybe I'll go from Paris to Tokyo, though, we'll see."

In any case, with the yellow jersey on his shoulders, there was more than a sense of mission accomplished for the Dutchman. He and his teammates had already worn a special purple-and-amber commemorative kit in honour of his grandfather's Mercier team colours for the Tour presentation. But on Sunday evening, the maillot jaune was unquestionably the best way of honouring Poulidor's memory of all.

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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.