"Winning is not as easy as everybody thinks," Mathieu van der Poel said, an hour or so after he had notched up his second Tour of Flanders victory in three years. All through his career, the Dutchman has made the winning business look disarmingly straightforward, toggling between disciplines with remarkable facility and picking up bouquets almost as a matter of course.
Here, for once, the swan could clearly be seen paddling furiously beneath the surface. On the final time up the Paterberg, Van der Poel briefly looked to have lost contact with his breakaway companion Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates). As the gradient bit, Van der Poel appeared to be struggling to keep his gear turning over, but he seemed almost to turn back time, straining from the saddle and inching his way back up to the two-time winner's wheel.
As if that visual impression weren't enough, the numbers Van der Poel posted to Strava as he waited to mount the podium seemed to confirm that following Pogačar through the Flemish Ardennes is beyond the reach of most. The Alpecin-Fenix rider's maximum power output was an eye-watering 1400 watts.
"I think today was maybe power-wise my best Tour of Flanders. Pogačar was really impressive on the climbs so I was happy to stay on his wheel. Especially on the last time up the Kwaremont and Paterberg, I was really happy to keep his wheel because I was really on the limit there," said Van der Poel, who acknowledged that the Slovenian debutant probably had his number on the climbs. "He was maybe the strongest in the race, and he rode offensively."
Sunday marked the third time in as many years that Van der Poel has reached the finish of the Ronde in a two-man move. After beating his old rival Wout van Aert in the pandemic-delayed edition of 2020, he was surprisingly outkicked by Kasper Asgreen a year ago. Two out of three ain't bad, even if the crowds on Oudenaarde's Markt could probably talk all night about the way Van der Poel and Pogačar almost frittered away their advantage in the final kilometre.
Forced to lead out the sprint, Van der Poel slowed dramatically within sight of the line, discommoding Pogačar but also allowing chasers Dylan van Baarle (Ineos) and Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ) to catch them in the final 200 metres. Van der Poel still summoned up the speed to fend off his fellow countryman Van Baarle, but Pogačar, seemingly over-geared for the kind of acceleration required here, ended the day empty-handed in fourth.
"I was really focusing on Pogačar, so I only saw them in a blink coming and then I started my sprint," said Van der Poel, who was seemingly as nerveless in today's two-up finale as he had been on the two previous occasions. "I don't feel any stress or I don't get nervous or anything. I just focus on my sprint. Also today, I was pretty calm and I just tried to launch my sprint at the right moment."
Tour de France
The late fightback from Van Baarle and Madouas conjured up memories of Van der Poel's own dramatic comeback in the breathless finale of the Amstel Gold Race three years ago. On that occasion, Van der Poel's late charge was perhaps also a remarkable correction of a previous mistake, given that his impetuous attacking earlier in the race had left him flat-footed when Julian Alaphilippe and Jakob Fuglsang surged clear in what looked to be the winning move.
On Sunday, Van der Poel dosed his effort more carefully. One surge near the top of the Koppenberg apart, the pre-race favourite preferred to track moves on the climbs rather than make them. He followed Pogačar's decisive acceleration on the final time up the Kwaremont and then held on over the Paterberg. That patience – and resilience – was rewarded with the second Monument victory of his career.
"Maybe on the Koppenberg I attacked a bit together with Tadej, but he was the first to attack for sure," said Van der Poel. He praised Pogačar, who proved a more than capable replacement for his usual sparring partner Wout van Aert, absent after testing positive for COVID-19.
"Wout van Aert would have been in the mix today as well, he would have been in our group for sure. I prefer to race with him and with Pogačar, because they just start racing from far out. It's maybe the wrong word to say it's the easiest way to race, but it's the most honest way, to be in the final with the best riders. It would have been more special again with Wout too, and I hope he will be fit for Roubaix."
All spring, Van Aert had been the favourite for this race, cementing his status with wins at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3 Harelbeke only to fall ill three days before the Ronde. Van der Poel, by contrast, wasn't certain if he would pin on a number at all in the Classics, due to the nagging back injury that cut short his cyclo-cross season.
He only started his road season at Milan-San Remo, where he placed third, but he got up to full speed with striking ease, winning a stage of the Settimana Coppi e Bartali and then adding Dwars door Vlaanderen in midweek. The normal rules don't seem to apply to Van der Poel.
"When I came back, I knew I had a good level, even if racing is something else," Van der Poel said. "But one month before Milan-San Remo, I was uncertain. If you asked me then, I'd say it was impossible. It was really nice to get rewarded for the hard work I did."
Van der Poel will race Amstel Gold Race and Paris-Roubaix before returning to the Hotel Syncrosfera in Denia – where he spent much of February and early March – to prepare for his likely debut at the Giro d'Italia in May, but he quickly shut down a question about his future prospects over three weeks. There are, after all, still miles to ride and promises to keep this month.
"If a Tour de France winner can strive for the win in Flanders, can a double Flanders winner…?" began the question.
"No," Van der Poel interrupted, to laughter from the press room.
"You're sure?" he was asked.
"Yes, I'm sure," said Van der Poel, quietly adamant that it's never as easy as everybody thinks.
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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, published by Gill Books.
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