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And Van der Poel knows enough to understand the road and the legs will decide who wins in Oudenaarde.
“Before the race I’m definitely not going to pin myself down on a three-way battle,” Van der Poel said Friday. “The race is unpredictable. There can be good riders who anticipate.
“It’s too easy to say the three of us are going to come out on top.”
Despite Van der Poel’s efforts to tap down the hype, many are expecting Sunday to be a repeat of E3 Saxo Classic, with Van Aert and Pogačar emerging as the three strongest in the race.
Alpecin Deceuninck brings a deep squad, with Søren Kragh Andersen, Michael Gogl, and Silvan Dillier. Yet all eyes are on Van der Poel, who won in 2020 in a two-up sprint against Van Aert, and again last year after taking Pogačar to the line.
Though Van der Poel vows not to let his guard down against the entire peloton, he knows that those two are his most dangerous direct rivals.
“They are both dangerous in their own way,” he said. “Tadej prefers to ride alone to the finish. He will try to ride away from us on the hills. Then again, Wout is the most difficult customer in the sprint.”
Training in Spain, eyeing Roubaix
While Jumbo-Visma continued its stampede across the northern classics, with victories at E3 Saxo Classic, Gent-Wevelgem, and Dwars door Vlaanderen, Van der Poel retreated to Spain.
The Dutch star is also keeping an eye on Paris-Roubaix, the French monument that he’s yet to win.
After being hobbled with back pain last year, Van der Poel hopes his detour through Spain will pay off Sunday and again on April 9 in France.
“I put in some extra work in ideal weather conditions to be fine in both the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix,” Van der Poel said of Spain.
“I’ve noticed in the past that I was usually just a bit less in Paris-Roubaix than in the Tour of Flanders. I wanted to avoid that this year,” he said. “Sunday I completed one last really long training session, but also the following days some longer trips were on the menu with extra accents to be at my best the coming week. The last days I obviously built in some rest, to keep the freshness.”
Van der Poel said he didn’t miss anything by choosing to train in Spain in good weather rather than recon the course or race.
“I’ve done the Ronde a few times now. I know the course. Last Friday I also rode the E3 Harelbeke, partly on the same roads,” he said. “Then I preferred to fly to the Spanish coast to finalize my preparation. Of course, the good weather conditions there were also a determining factor.
“Because of back problems, the run-up last year was atypical, but in the end I made it to my very best level that day,” he said. “Now I feel I’m more course-ready. Last year I also succeeded with a slightly less broad base, but then the peak lasts just a bit less long.
“In Roubaix, the legs were already a bit less. That will be hopefully different this year.”
Racing to win, against all comers
Van der Poel is clearly on great form, and is two-for-three so far for his major goals in 2023. He won his fifth cyclocross world title in February, and then won Milan-San Remo in dramatic fashion in March.
Last week, Van Aert nipped him at E3 Saxo Classic, but he heads to Bruges on Sunday with a chance to equal the three-win mark to join six riders who’ve won the Belgian monument three times.
“I knew about it, but I haven’t thought about it yet,” he said. “Winning the Tour of Flanders once, that was a goal. But I definitely don’t pin myself down on a number. It would be nice though.”
Van der Poel is game-planning every scenario. Whether or not Van Aert or Pogačar are there doesn’t worry him. He just wants to win.
“The past three editions we rode to the finish with two. Coming in alone would be something special, but it’s not obvious because after the Paterberg it’s a long way to Oudenaarde and not comparable to the final of Milan-San Remo. Anyway, I’m hoping for a scenario where I’m competing for a third win.”
Van der Poel knows the legs, his rivals, and the road will decide who wins Sunday.
“You take the experience with you, of course. When and where to position properly. You know the important passages,” he said. “But good legs is a bigger requirement than that experience. You may master all the parts like the best, if you don’t have the legs on Sunday, it doesn’t buy you anything.”