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Mathieu van der Poel’s post-race interview didn’t last long. There was one prompt about the significance of his win (“I have no words. Really, I don’t know what to say.”) One question about attacking early for bonus seconds (“I knew I needed the bonus seconds if I wanted the [yellow] jersey”). And then a final question, the answer to which was already clear.
“Who were you thinking of when you crossed the line?” the interviewer asked.
Van der Poel paused to gather himself, and then, choking back tears: “My grandad of course.”
For the next few minutes Van der Poel sat sobbing, elbows on knees, his still-helmeted head in his hands, overcome with the emotion of the moment. And all at a race he hadn’t really wanted to do.
A few minutes earlier Van der Poel had soloed to a brilliant victory atop the Mûr-de-Bretagne, winning stage 2 of his first Tour de France. He moved into the overall lead in the process.
He’d sat up as he reached the line, just ahead of a chasing group, and gestured emphatically to the sky. A stirring tribute to his late maternal grandfather, the great Raymond Poulidor.
So tricky was Poulidor’s relationship with the Tour de France that he attracted the nickname “The Eternal Second”. In all, “Poupou” finished on the Tour podium eight times – three times runner-up, five times third, but never on the top step. And despite his remarkable consistency, he never once wore the leader’s yellow jersey. To see his grandson achieve that feat in just his second stage at the race would have meant the world. “I imagine how proud he would be,” Van der Poel said.
Nineteen months on from Poulidor’s death, the pain of his passing is still incredibly raw for Van der Poel.
“People who know me know how close we were,” Van der Poel told AD Sportwereld after his win on Sunday. “I am really struggling.”
Van der Poel’s outpouring of emotion on Sunday was the sort of display that makes sport so compelling. This victory was more significant than yet another win for one of the sport’s biggest talents; more significant even than winning on the sport’s biggest stage for the first time. This was about family. About wearing yellow for a grandfather that was never able to – a grandfather he still misses desperately. And let’s not forget, there’s another family connection to the yellow jersey too – Mathieu’s father Adri led the Tour for one day back in 1984 as well.
Van der Poel’s emotional response is particularly striking when you consider he didn’t really want to race the Tour de France.
The 26-year-old had made no secret of his biggest goal for the season: racing the cross country MTB event at the Tokyo Olympics. Riding the Tour? That was always a secondary priority. “For me, the Olympics is way more important than the Tour,” he said after winning a fourth cyclocross world title earlier this year.
Indeed, had it been up to him, Van der Poel would likely be off training at the moment, rather than racing his first Grand Tour.
“I have considered skipping the Tour,” he said in February. “If I had chosen the best path to top form [for the Olympics], I would have skipped it. But the sponsors and the team want me to be there and I understand the importance.
“They are the ones who pay my wages. I already get a lot of privileges by combining three disciplines and that is less common in other teams. It’s also not that it’s a punishment to ride the Tour.”
It’s fair to say Van der Poel riding the Tour has worked out well. For all concerned. In two days, those of us watching have now been treated to two swashbuckling wins from a couple of the sport’s biggest and most popular stars. Just as the course designers drew it up.
Alpecin-Fenix, too, will be delighted. Just two days in, the second-tier team’s Tour is already a raging success. Already they’ve nabbed a stage win and taken yellow. Further success will likely follow.
And of course, racing the Tour has worked out brilliantly for Van der Poel himself. Few will now question his decision to leave the Tour early as planned, to prepare for Tokyo. He’s got the stage win he was after, and he’s got the yellow jersey. Both seem to mean more than perhaps even Van der Poel himself expected.
Good thing Alpecin-Fenix gave him a nudge to race the Tour, then.