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Tour de France

Tour de France: Pressure mounting on Van der Poel’s shoulders

Alpecin-Decuninck come up short in the first three sprint stages, shifting hopes to their superstar.

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Is it finally time for Mathieu van der Poel to step into the Tour de France spotlight on Wednesday’s pavé stage? In stark contrast to his usual attractive racing style, the Dutch ace has kept his guns relatively quiet so far. He rode a strong time-trial that led to fifth place but then focused on staying out of trouble in the three following stages. He’s now trailing in-form Wout van Aert by 38 seconds ahead of the cobbled stage 5 from Lille to Arenberg on Wednesday.

“The two grand tours I’ve done featured stages that suited me early on,” Van der Poel said in Dunkerque on Monday morning. “That’s different now. We’re supporting Jasper Philipsen now. I don’t mind to step aside for now after doing the Giro. I believe in Jasper’s chances to win. Obviously there’s enough chances left to come. I hope to get a stage win but it’s not going to be easy for sure. It’s not realistic to think that I can win a stage or wear the leader’s jersey in every grand tour I’m taking part in. Obviously I’m going to try.”

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The team of Mathieu van der Poel, Alpecin-Deceuninck, decided that Jasper Philipsen would be the team leader in the three stages that were likely to finish in a bunch sprint. There’s criticism regarding this decision. Adam Blythe stated that the team shouldn’t hold Van der Poel back and let him play because they risked having him puncture early on Wednesday and still being empty-handed. Robbie McEwen pointed out that he might be recovering from the Giro.

Adrie van der Poel told Wielerflits in Calais that his son Mathieu no longer wanted to mix in with the bunch sprints. He added that Mathieu’s Tour de France really starts on Wednesday and that Van Aert’s strong performances might be an extra motivation to perform well. All in all, it indicates that the team tactic is supported by Mathieu van der Poel, who emphasized that on Tuesday morning.

“It wasn’t part of the plan to try something on the climb today,” said the younger van der Poel before the start of stage 4 in Dunkerque. I don’t think a breakaway on the climb can get to the finish if there’s a few teams who set up the chase. You can’t drop someone like Jakobsen on such a short climb. It’ll be a matter of being at the front and paying attention but I expect a sprint. Today is a nice chance for Jasper and I hope to be part of the train to lead him out. He can survive a climb and showed his good form in Denmark. We have to gamble on him today.”

If one thing stands out then it is that he wasn’t riding up front as the Jumbo train took off.

Regardless, the team tactics nearly proved successful. Stage 2 resulted in a fifth place for Philipsen. A remarkable long sprint landed an unthankful third place in stage 3. On Tuesday Philipsen actually won the bunch sprint, not realizing Wout van Aert had just racked up a solo victory.

It would’ve been a huge difference if he had actually won a stage. Now, the pressure is mounting on Van der Poel’s shoulders while the goal was to keep it off his shoulders. After racing along for three weeks in the Giro d’Italia in the month of May he stayed out of competition in June. That was an unusual approach for the Dutchman.

“I need to find my good legs of course,” he said. “I’m still searching for them. I hope to find them this week. Denmark? Not really. For me, the preparation for this race after my previous grand tour was a bit unknown. It’s a question mark for me. I hope they will return. The level is so high here and in every stage there’s not one big favorite but five other guys who can win the stage. That’s the beautiful thing about bike racing.”

Van der Poel will be aiming for a stage victory on Wednesday when the mini-edition of Paris-Roubaix is contested between Lille and the finish at Arenberg. Even the yellow jersey was still on his mind on Tuesday morning at the team bus.

“It’s just a really small Paris-Roubaix,” Van der Poel said. “There’s not a lot of sections. The run-up to the sections will probably be more nervous than the sections itself. The GC guys also want to be up there. It’s just going to be really nervous. If you can stay out of trouble and don’t have mechanicals then you can already go far.

“If there’s a chance to take the yellow jersey, for sure. All the guys who are still within one minute from Wout van Aert are still aiming for the yellow jersey. It’s something I was aiming at but it’s not going to be easy for sure.”

The Dutch ace finished within the main peloton in Calais but he failed to feature up front when his arch rival Wout van Aert attacked. Usually when Van Aert goes, Van der Poel isn’t too far away. Van der Poel’s legs still must not be feeling great or he’s sticking to the team plan to keep calm — which would be a first. After stage 4 Van der Poel is 18 seconds further down on Van Aert, now totaling 38 seconds. After the race he didn’t come back out of the team bus to speak to the media. The focus is on the cobbles.

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