Maybe Mathieu van der Poel is human after all

Van der Poel was pushed to the limit Sunday, mentally and physically. It showed he's not as bulletproof as he sometimes appears.

Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

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Mathieu van der Poel‘s continued his seemingly unstoppable march Sunday. But for once, he had a tough time doing it.

The Dutchman added to his long list of iconic victories on a storm-soaked stage of Tirreno-Adriatico this weekend, going solo 50 kilometers from the line to claim his fourth win of the season on perhaps the most grueling day of racing of 2021. It was another in a rapidly expanding list of unforgettable “MvdP” moments, a collection of monster breakaways and crushing attacks that have dominated the headlines in the past 12 months.

The victory was no surprise given van der Poel’s peerless form.

However, the scenes of him collapsing to the floor after crossing the line were more unusual. For once, van der Poel looked like he really suffered. It was a rare glimpse of humanity from an otherwise otherworldly prodigy.

Also read: Mathieu van der Poel makes it two in attritional stage of Tirreno-Adriatico

“The body was empty,” van der Poel said Sunday. “It was certainly one of the toughest days of my career.”

The world has become accustomed to seeing van der Poel seemingly doing what he wants against the best racers in the world. He’s blown the likes of Wout van Aert and Julian Alaphilippe off his wheel at Strade Bianche, pulled victory out of nowhere at Amstel Gold Race, and beaten thoroughbred sprinters in bunch kicks.

What we’re not so used to is seeing van der Poel looking like he’s actually struggling.

The closing 20 minutes of the race Sunday made for a front-row view of a rider slowly-but-surely coming unstitched at the seams.

Having blasted through the pounding rain and gusting winds in just his skinsuit while the bunch behind bundled into jackets, gilets, and gloves, van der Poel could be seen slowly seizing up, his eyes glazing over and his legs freezing. Tadej Pogačar hunted him down like a hound tracking a hare, and “MvdP” came to within 10 seconds of being caught before crossing the line and collapsing to the floor, spent.

It made for a throwback to the Harrogate world championships when a sodden, depleted van der Poel bonked in the closing 10 kilometers — a story that made as many headlines as Mads Pedersen’s unlikely gold medal.

“The last 10-15 kilometers were hell for me today,” van der said Sunday, his eyes misty and face pallid. “I thought he was going to get me. I couldn’t ride 200 watts anymore, I was completely empty with the cold and the long solo I did. I don’t even know how I got to the finish line today.”

Van der Poel has seemed untouchable in the past 12 months. And that racing dominance and accompanying confidence was matched by an unreachable personality. Other than his rich bike-racing heritage and a decade-long rivalry with van Aert, the Dutchman seemed an enigma. Interviews gave little insight into his character, and he raced as though he were playing a computer game at an easy setting, winning without the slightest glimmer of a wobble.

Also read: Mathieu van der Poel is poised to rule the classics

That computer game was turned up to level-10 on Sunday. Van der Poel visibly cracked as he pedaled around the relentless final circuit of Castelfidardo and almost lost the race in the closing kilometers as Pogačar followed in his wheel tracks.

There was none of the cross-armed confidence of his stage 3 victory when van der Poel rolled across the line Sunday. He had no energy for that.

Van der Poel is a tough nut to crack and a hard character to fathom. But Sunday’s ride showed that maybe he is human after all and that maybe there is a man inside his almost robotic exterior.

“If I had finished second, it would have been a big disappointment,” van der Poel said after the race. “Did I make history? No idea. It feels like that to me, because I can’t remember a race where I felt that way at the end. I was just dead in the end. I’m glad I won, but I was really dead.”

It wasn’t a monument like Tour of Flanders or a display of breathtaking display of power like Strade Bianche or Amstel Gold Race. Van der Poel’s victory Sunday was that of a rider that does have faults and can be undone. Van Aert, Alaphilippe, and Co. will be breathing a sigh of relief, and fans may finally have something to latch on to.


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