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We’re quickly running out of superlatives to describe Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and the class of superstar 20-somethings that have taken the cycling world by storm. Whether it’s the final sprint on the Champs-Élysées, a summit finish on Alpe d’Huez, or the final lap of the velodrome at Paris-Roubaix, you’re likely to see a few of these names: van der Poel, van Aert, Pedersen, Pidcock, Alaphilippe, Pogačar, and Bernal. This new generation is almost unstoppable, not just in road cycling, but across disciplines too; and namely cyclocross.
And so it was, on the white roads of Tuscany, where the next generation took the reins. In the final few hundred meters, Dutch national champion, Mathieu van der Poel, sprinted away from a most flamboyant world champion in Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), and the 2019 Tour de France winner Egan Bernal (Ineos-Grenadiers).
Simply put, van der Poel’s Strade Bianche is one of the most incredible and eye-watering performance we have ever seen. Now, let’s dive into the numbers.
Monument or not, Strade Bianche is one of the most exciting one-day races of the season and the unofficial gravel world championships. The 2021 route totaled 184km, including 11 sectors of gravel which made up 54km of the course. In 2020, dry heat played a major role in the outcome of the race, but forecasted rain turned into moderate temperatures by the time the Saturday start rolled around.
The rolling terrain and punchy gravel sectors are what make Strade Bianche one of the hardest one-day races in professional cycling. While the longest climb of the day — the Salite Di Montalcino — is only 5.6km long, the constant up-and-down nature of the course results in over 3,300m (10,800ft) of climbing over the entire course.
Van der Poel’s race can be divided into two fairly distinct sections: 1) The first three hours of the race, up until the San Martino in Grania sector; and 2) The final 90 minutes of the race, from the Monte Sante Marie sector to the finish line in the Piazza del Campo.
In the first section of the race, van der Poel stayed quiet in the peloton, watching breakaway attempts go and fail before the real race began. The only real tests in the opening few hours were the climbs to Grotti and to Montalcino. Both climbs were relatively shallow, with average gradients around 5 percent, and the race hardly threatened to split. As we will come to see, van der Poel’s effort was so comfortable on these climbs that his heart rate barely reached his threshold zone.
Van der Poel – Salita Bagnaia to Grotti:
Average Power: 431w (5.8w/kg)
Normalized Power: 442w (5.9w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 166bpm
Van der Poel – Salite Di Montalcino:
Average Power: 375w (5w/kg)
Normalized Power: 385w (5.1w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 152bpm
For the first three hours of the race, van der Poel averaged just 288w (3.8w/kg), but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Over this section, his normalized power was 351w (4.7w/kg) – not a huge number on its own, but given the context, we can begin to understand just how hard the race was up to this point. Van der Poel was riding at or above 400w on almost every climb through the race, taking the sting out of his legs (or at least, it would take the sting out of a normal person’s legs), and burning up energy that he would need later in the race.
Van der Poel – start to San Martino in Grania sector:
Average Power: 288w (3.8w/kg)
Normalized Power: 351w (4.7w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 137bpm
Total Work: 3091kJs
With 118km under his tri-color belt, van der Poel watched as Quinn Simmons (Trek-Segafredo), the 19-year-old American, went on the attack with Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R-Citroën) and 14 others after the San Martino in Grania gravel sector. Jumbo-Visma took up the chase for 2020’s everything-man and Strade Bianche champion, Wout van Aert. As the bee-led peloton hit the longest sector of the day at Monte Sante Marie, van der Poel was caught way out of position and had to force his way through the field in order to rejoin the leaders.
By the time the dust settled, there were only eight riders left at the front of the race: van Aert, Alaphilippe, van der Poel, Egan Bernal, Tom Pidcock, Simmons, Michael Gogl (Qhubeka-Assos), and Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates).
Not only did van der Poel follow Alaphilippe – one of the best puncheurs in the world – on one of the hardest gravel sectors of the race, but the Dutchman also had to make up ground, cutting through the field at over 600w, and bridging to the leaders completely on his own.
Van der Poel – Monte Sante Marie sector:
Average Power: 406w (5.4w/kg)
Normalized Power: 474w (6.3w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 172bpm
Peak 6-minute Power:
Average Power: 490w (6.5w/kg)
Normalized Power: 550w (7.3w/kg)
Peak 2-minute Power: 583w (7.8w/kg)
Instead of riding at 400w up the climbs as he did in the opening three hours of the race, van der Poel is now pushing an unbelievable 500 to 600w up the climbs, following the best puncheurs in the world, and preparing to throw in attacks on his own.
In this final 90 minutes of racing that kicks off at the Monte Sante Marie, we truly get a glimpse of what makes van der Poel unbeatable: 440w Normalized Power during this final section of the race.
A standalone effort of 440w (5.8w/kg) for 20 minutes would be mightily impressive on its own. An hour at close to 6w/kg puts you among the best in the world. But 90 minutes at 5.8w/kg, after three hours of classics-style gravel racing through the Italian countryside makes you the number one rider in the world, and virtually unbeatable.
In the 30 minutes following the Monte Sante Marie, the few at the front refrained from attacking each other, for the time being. The gap was growing to the groups behind, and the hardest section of the race was still to come, but that didn’t mean those 30 minutes were easy.
Van der Poel – Monte Sante Marie to Monteaperti sector:
Average Power: 346w (4.6w/kg)
Normalized Power: 387w (5.2w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 164bpm
On the Monteaperti, Alaphilippe launched an attack that was closely marked by van der Poel; but that didn’t stop the world champion from accelerating again less than two kilometers later, this time distancing everyone but van der Poel and Bernal.
The final decisive move came on the Le Tolfe climb, a short and steep gravel sector with 10km to go. Just as van Aert and the others caught back on, van der Poel lit the afterburners, hitting a peak of over 1,000w, and instantly dropping the entire group from his wheel. The attack on Le Tolfe was impressive enough, but even more so when you consider the run-in to the climb, and the fatigue that these riders are carrying into the fourth hour of racing at Strade Bianche.
Van der Poel – Le Tolfe sector:
Average Power: 522w (7w/kg)
Max Power: 1,035w (13.8w/kg)
Peak 1-minute Power:
Power: 740w (10w/kg)
Max Heart Rate: 189bpm
Alaphilippe and Bernal clawed their way back to van der Poel, and the trio worked well together for the next few kilometers. Van der Poel was feeling so good, in fact, that he attacked again with 4km to go. Not content with the workload so far, the Dutchman pushed 500w for a minute-and-a-half before being caught again by Bernal and Alaphilippe. But again, the Dutchman was so confident that he led into the final kilometer and the infamous climb up to the Piazza del Campo.
I’m sure you’ve seen it by now: The “thermonuclear attack” of Mathieu van der Poel that broke the legs of the world champion Julian Alaphilippe, and shattered the hopes of the 2019 Tour de France Champion, Egan Bernal. The Dutchman led into the final climb with such ease that you almost knew he would win. Attacking from the front, as only the boldest will do, van der Poel hit a peak of 1,362w, and held over 1,000w for 20 seconds while flying up the finish towards the Piazza del Campo. Alaphilippe, and the rest of the world, could only watch in awe as van der Poel climbed the wall of Sienna faster than any other rider in history.
Van der Poel – final 1.5km:
Average Power: 480w (6.4w/kg)
Power: 1,146w (15.3w/kg)
Max Power: 1,362w (18.2w/kg)
Part of the reason that van der Poel was able to attack so devastatingly in the final kilometer was the little bit of rest that he had from kilometers 183 to 185. The downhill run-in towards Sienna gave van der Poel a well-earned break where he was able to average just 213w for two full minutes.
With his final, jaw-dropping attack, van der Poel became the 2021 Strade Bianche champion, and arguably the most feared rider in the world.
Van der Poel – 2021 Strade Bianche:
Average Power: 318w (4.2w/kg)
Normalized Power: 389w (5.2w/kg)
Max Power: 1362w (18.2w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 148bpm
Max Heart Rate: 189bpm
Total Work: 5449kJs
Peak 1-minute Power: 740w (9.9w/kg)
Peak 5-minute Power: 494w (6.6w/kg)
Peak 20-minute Power: 407w (5.4w/kg)
Peak 3-hour Power: 344w (4.6w/kg)
Mathieu van der Poel’s Strava profile.