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After Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) stormed to his second career Tour of Flanders victory on Sunday, he took stock of what he had achieved, saying that his ride was his strongest Flanders performance thus far.
“Today, was power-wise my best Tour of Flanders,” Van der Poel said. “[Tadej] Pogačar was really impressive on the climbs, so I was happy to stay on his wheel.”
Van der Poel’s Strava data backed up that notion. En route to his victory, he took over the KOM on the brutal “Koppenberg – Steenbeekdries – Taaienberg (lang)” segment previously held by Wout van Aert. That Van der Poel was able to climb to the top step of the Flanders podium despite having had his offseason plans derailed by a back injury was all the more remarkable. As of three weeks ago, he still had yet to make his first start of the season. On Sunday, he took what was his third win already of an astonishing start to 2022.
Van der Poel’s comments after his victory suggested that, given the circumstances, he was grateful for any amount of success, regardless of the magnitude of the race.
“Winning is always nice,” he said. “Also, my stage win at Coppi e Bartali was really nice, and it’s a 2.1 race. Winning is not as easy as everyone thinks. The level is really high at the moment, and I’m really happy to win again today.”
Van der Poel took Sunday’s win after battling with Pogačar out front over the final 30 km. The duo had rocketed clear of their rivals on the final trip up the Oude Kwaremont, with the UAE Team Emirates rider pushing the pace. On the ensuing climb of the Paterberg, a big surge from Pogačar put some daylight between the defending Tour de France champ and the four-time cyclocross world champ, but Van der Poel clawed back to Pogačar and then the two stuck together all the way to Oudenaarde.
At the last, their cat-and-mouse game on the finishing straight allowed Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers) and Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ) to catch back up and pass Pogačar, but that should not mask the fact that the versatile Slovenian had very nearly run away with the race. Van der Poel confirmed afterward that he had been close to a breaking point.
“Especially last time on the Kwaremont and Paterberg, I was really happy to keep Pogačar’s wheel because I was really on the limit there,” Van der Poel said.
The Dutchman went on to tip his cap to the Flanders debutant, calling him “really impressive,” while acknowledging that Pogačar’s performance was hardly a surprise.
“As I said before the start I knew he [Pogačar] was going to be there in front, he was already pretty strong at Dwars,” Van der Poel said. “He showed again today what a talent he was.”
Sunday marked the third straight year that Van der Poel had arrived in Oudenaarde to contest the Flanders victory. In 2020, he bested Van Aert in a two-rider sprint. In 2021, he settled for second after Kasper Asgreen overtook him in a stunning finale. In 2022, Van der Poel reclaimed the title.
All things considered, it was a unique day for the 27-year-old star. It was his first time winning Flanders in front of big crowds after COVID-19 restrictions kept them away from the race the past two years, and a dramatic moment to cap off what has been a stellar comeback from his back issues.
“It’s difficult to compare but I worked really hard to get back here and with the crowds it’s really different,” van der Poel said. “It’s really different racing.”
Van der Poel’s return to dominance may be a change of pace from the past few months of uncertainty, but it’s hardly an unfamiliar state of affairs after his brilliance the last two seasons. Now, he’ll try to extend his run of form into Paris-Roubaix and the Amstel Gold Race – although he can first take some time to enjoy what he has accomplished so far.
As Van der Poel put it, “I’m just happy with my performances, and the Ronde is a race that suits me pretty well.”
After Sunday’s display and the past few editions in general, who could disagree with that?
Jonny Long contributed to this report.