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The Dutch rider didn’t start his season until Milan-San Remo a couple of weeks ago due to a long-standing back injury but he finished third on the Via Roma and then backed that up with a stage win in Coppi e Bartali a week later. He heads into Dwars door Vlaanderen, on Wednesday, as he gears up for what he hopes will be his second victory in the Tour of Flanders.
“Yes, I think that Coppi e Bartali was really good preparation. Especially the stage that I won. That was close to the level that I need to be good at the Flemish classics. I’m ready,” he told reporters during a press conference on Tuesday.
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The field for the Tour of Flanders is stacked with classics specialists but this year two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar is also set to line up for the race. The Slovenian is also racing Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday. Heading into Sunday’s monument and many pundits are predicting a three-way battle between Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), van der Poel, and the flying Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma).
“I just look forward to racing again with the crowds. It’s been two years in Flanders without them so it will be nice to race with them again. It’s an honest race and we’ve seen that in the last couple of years the strongest riders will be in front. I look forward to trying and racing for the victory again,” van der Poel said.
The fact that Pogačar has decided to break up his Tour de France program and slot in a block of racing on the cobbles is a slight surprise to van der Poel, but the Dutch rider acknowledged that the Slovenian could not be discarded from the list of pre-race favorites due to his inexperience. Pogačar won the Tour de France on his first attempt and while the terrain and race strategy in the Tour of Flanders is very different, the UAE Team Emirates rider has a habit of transitioning to new environments without the need for a “bedding-in” period.
“I don’t know he’s doing it but we’ve seen that he’s capable in everything that he does. I think he’s someone that we have to pay attention to in the upcoming races,’ van der Poel said.
Normally, a long lay-off from racing would mean a slow build-up to serious goals but van der Poel — a last-minute inclusion in Milan-San Remo — has been flying since his return. The time off the bike allowed him to recover from last year’s exploits and work on his back injuries that first surfaced last summer.
“Maybe this has been one of my best preparations because I had the time to prepare myself the way that I wanted to,” he said.
“I didn’t immediately start racing after the cyclocross season, so for me, I feel pretty good with the preparation that I did. I’ve felt good in the race that I’ve done. Of course, the preparation has been a bit shorter than if I’d had the choice but I think that it’s been really good. I still have to pay attention to it. I do my daily exercises and I need a lot of treatment for my back as well. I’m as good as pain-free on the bike, and on the bike it’s been better than it has been in years. I just need to give it a lot of attention. For now, it’s going great.”
Van der Poel was also asked about his team and the strength in depth at Alpecin-Fenix.
“We proved last year that we’re one of the strongest teams. For sure we’ll miss Jonas Rickaert with an injury but I think that the team is strong enough to help me but you can’t rely on a team until the finish line.”