OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — According to Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck), he rode his best-ever finale of the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, the second cycling monument of the season.
Knowing that the 28-year-old Dutch rider has never finished outside the top five in his four previous Ronde van Vlaanderen participations, that performance should have gotten him close to a record-equalling third Ronde victory, but it didn’t happen.
In the fastest-ever edition of the Belgian one-day race, Van der Poel had to bow his head to Slovenian wonder boy Tadej Pogačar.
“There’s disappointment, but it’s easier to cope with that when somebody is stronger. I’ve never been as strong in the Ronde as today. It’s a race I really like and suits me really well but today someone was stronger,” Van der Poel said in the mixed zone after the finish in Oudenaarde.
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Van der Poel didn’t hide his appreciation for his younger rival when asked if cycling had entered the Pogačar era.
“That’s obvious. What we do is impressive but what he does is much more impressive. It’ll be like Merckx, or he’s at least well on his way to that. He’s the rider who — if he wanted — has the best chance to win all five monuments and all three grand tours. I think he’ll pull it off too,” Van der Poel said in the mixed zone in Oudenaarde.
“Riders used to combine the classics and the grand tours, then stopped doing that and now it’s back again. We all knew he was a special rider and today he showed that again. The strongest rider won today. To me, he was the pre-race favorite and he confirmed those expectations. He’s a very enjoyable person, but obviously, I want to win myself. He can stick to the grand tours.”
The 169.8-mile course leads the riders from Bruges to Oudenaarde and the second half of the race is contested over a mixture of cobbles and short “bergs,” the typical climbs in Flemish Ardennes region. The first two hours of the race saw the riders average 49kph and at the finish, after more than six hours of racing, Pogačar averaged 44kph.
“It’s the fifth time I have done this race I think, and it’s never been like this. The race was on straight from the start and it never stopped.”
In between the climbs and the cobbles, there was chaos with multiple huge crashes. Van der Poel was riding behind Filip Maciejuk (Bahrain Victorious) who took down most of the peloton with a move that cost him a disqualification; he escaped that crash.
“I think I escaped 20 crashes today. It was really hectic and there were a lot of crashes. The big crash happened just in front of me. It was his own mistake. I don’t know what he was planning to do there. They should create punishments for such behavior. It’s so obvious. It was like a bowling ball rolling into the peloton. It was really not necessary at that point of the race,” Van der Poel said.
When asked if that was the reason he was spotted racing at the back of the peloton early on, he confirmed that hypothesis.
“Early on, for sure. I tend not to crash very often and that’s because I know where I’ve got to be,” Van der Poel said.
The approach did cost him a few teammates when echelons split the peloton apart after nearly an hour of racing. Van der Poel was caught behind and his teammates had to work to close the gap back down.
“That was my mistake. I’ll have to apologize to my teammates on the team bus because they had to save me a couple of times [laughs] but they’re probably used to that from me. If I wasted a bullet there? I had to sacrifice my team there because they were suffering at that point but not me because I was well protected from the wind when they closed the gap,” Van der Poel said.
“That’s the downside of riding at the back early on. I know that’s a risk but didn’t feel like it would split there. I didn’t panic. Later in the final teammates didn’t matter that much because the strongest riders appeared in front anyways. The teammates did what was expected from them. Having a rider in the breakaway group would’ve been ideal but you’ve got to be able to pull that off too. It was a really tough day with racing on from start to finish.”
Once the race hit its crucial phase — cresting the 200km barrier — Van der Poel seemed vulnerable. During the second of three passages over the 1.37mi long cobbled Oude Kwaremont climb he was unable to keep up with the move from Pogačar. The Jumbo-Visma team outnumbered him in the chase group and forced him to close the gap down with Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers).
On the famous Koppenberg climb, a short, cobbled climb with gradients up to 22 percent he had to dig deep to keep up with Pogačar and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma).
“The first two times they went full gas I was suffering because I was cold. Once that was over, I felt really good,” Van der Poel said.
On the Taaienberg he ran into trouble again but this time due to a mechanical problem. He managed to close down the gap on the climb with an impressive acceleration.
“Dropping my chain at the foot of the Taaienberg wasn’t the best location to encounter that. I felt really strong at that point in the race. On the Kruisberg, I wanted to go full gas for the first time. In the past, it never occurred to me to accelerate there. Now I did, which means I was ok. It’s one of the hardest sections on the course,” Van der Poel said.
Van Aert got dropped on the Kruisberg and from there it was a battle between Pogačar and Van der Poel with 16.5mi to the finish, although the remains of the breakaway group were still ahead of them.
They bridged up to those riders before the penultimate climb of the day, the third passage over the Oude Kwaremont. Pogačar went full gas, even before the cobbled section. Once on the pavé, Van der Poel had to let the Slovenian rider go.
“On the Kwaremont I was just unable to go with him when he went. His approach wasn’t a surprise. He’s got to do it like that. I rode at my own pace, hoping that I would be able to return but he didn’t lose speed,” Van der Poel said.
When reminded by a journalist that the gap at the top of the Oude Kwaremont was ‘only’ 12 seconds, Van der Poel smiled and sighed.
“Try to close those twelve seconds back down on him. I’ve never ridden so fast on the section before the cobbles and rode my best-ever power values on the climb but was unable to follow. I rode at my own pace and, to me, that felt like quite a fast pace. I didn’t want to blow up my engine and hoped to come back to him later on.”
After the Paterberg, the final climb of the day, there was still 12km to go battling a headwind towards the finish in Oudenaarde.
“That wasn’t fun, especially because it was for second place. I just rode as hard as I could. I’ve never ridden so well from the Pater until the finish but didn’t come any closer. It’s not a missed chance. When you’re beating your value then it’s easier to deal with it. It still sucks to finish as runner-up. If someone goes and you can’t follow, you just have to be happy and be proud about the way I rode this Ronde.”
Van der Poel was already victorious at the first Monument of the season, winning Milan-San Remo in Italy but he had to bow his head for another rider in the Ronde. At next week’s Paris-Roubaix there’s no Slovenian wonder boy on show thus there’s a new chance to win a second monument this year.
Van der Poel will be one of the favorites in the “Hell of the North” and he’s surely aiming to capture a first win at the velodrome in Roubaix. He finished third and ninth in his two previous participations. “If I’m honest, Roubaix is a race that suits me a little bit less. It’s a slightly different effort. The form and the legs are there so I’ll go for it.”