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It didn’t surprise me that Mathieu van der Poel crossed the line first at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday. And that’s because I had a quick look at his power file from last Wednesday’s Dwars Door Vlaanderen, a 184km tune-up race for Flanders. Churning 405w Normalized Power for two hours and forty-two minutes – that was the finale of DVV, which van der Poel won in dominant fashion over Tiesj Benoot in a two-up sprint. I had never seen anything like this — more than 400w for nearly three hours.
Pundits said that Flanders is a different beast: 272km versus 184km could make all the difference. Van der Poel doesn’t have the endurance. He’s hardly trained all winter. Sure, he finished 3rd at Milan-Sanremo, but that 299km race is so easy…
Coming into the Tour of Flanders, the biggest news was Wout van Aert’s absence – out with COVID. Many then saw Tadej Pogačar as the favorite to take the title, despite 2022 being his first attempt at the race. After Pogačar, van Aert, and Van der Poel, the rest of the field were second-tier: Tom Pidcock, Stefan Küng, Christophe Laporte, and Kasper Asgreen were in with a shout, but few expected them to win.
Despite being a former winner, many doubted van der Poel’s chances at the Tour of Flanders. The 27-year-old only made his return to racing fifteen days ago at Milan-Sanremo (where he finished 3rd) after a tough winter plagued by knee and back injuries. Van der Poel hardly rode in January and completed only some basic training before his unexpected start at the first monument of the season in Italy. Needless to say, his legs were fine.
This is how Mathieu van der Poel won the Tour of Flanders.
As always, the first few hours of the second monument of the season constituted very little action. A nine-rider breakaway built up a four-minute lead in the opening 100km, while van der Poel and the rest of the pre-race favorites sat in the pack. This section of the race was easy for van der Poel (just look at his average heart rate), but would have been in no way easy for mere mortals. The pack still averaged nearly 45kph among the twists and turns, and ups and downs of northwest Belgium.
Van der Poel – first 3 hours of the Tour of Flanders:
Average Power: 247w (3.3w/kg)
Normalized Power: 285w (3.8w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 129bpm
About halfway through the route the race began. From here on, the favorites fought for every inch of road, domestiques sacrificed themselves for team leaders, and a million screaming fans lined the cobbled climbs on the way to Oudenaarde.
With 140km remaining, the peloton began the winding circuits of Flandrien climbs which included the Oude Kwaremont, Molenberg, Berendries, Achterberg, Wolvenberg, Valkenberg, Kanarieberg, Paterberg, Koppenberg…and four or five more. All you need to remember is the Kwaremont, the Paterberg, and the Koppenberg, the most famous climbs in Flanders.
The first passage of the Kwaremont was relatively easy for van der Poel, who climbed the steepest section in three minutes at an average of 460w (6w/kg). The only reason this counts as “easy” is because I’m comparing it to what he and Pogačar did later in the race.
Before we examine the finale, we have to explain what makes the Tour of Flanders so hard. If you only watch the last hour, you might find it hard to believe that so many riders were getting dropped on these two-to-three-minute climbs. But in reality, they’ve been racing for more than five hours, and basically doing VO2max intervals that entire time.
From 140km to 55km to go, the field was mainly getting tired. Of course, there were attacks, but they never went anywhere. And the favorites kept their powder dry. But it was still hard – very hard. This is what it took for van der Poel to stay near the front of the peloton.
Van der Poel – 140km to 55km to go
Normalized Power: 373w (5w/kg)
Kwaremont: 460w for 2:59
Wolvenberg: 500w for 1:02
Keireberg: 450w for 2:25
Molenberg: 500w for 1:35
Valkenberg: 430w for 3:26
Berg Ten Houte: 612w for 2:03
Berg Ten Houte Peak 1-min Power: 727w
I think this is illustrative, and we haven’t even looked at his data from the final hour.
The first breaking point came at about 50km, on the penultimate passage of the Oude Kwaremont. Tour de France Champion Tadej Pogačar went full gas from the bottom of the climb, riding the entire field off his wheel except for a select group of favorites. Surprisingly, van der Poel wasn’t initially in the mix, and was instead trailing a few seconds behind with Tom Pidcock. Here we can see one of the Dutchman’s biggest efforts of the entire race – and he still was a few seconds behind Pogačar.
Van der Poel – chasing Pogačar up the Kwaremont:
Average Power: 525w (7w/kg)
Peak 3-min Power: 560w (7.5w/kg)
There was no rest for the weary as the lead group – now comprised of around 20 riders – dove down towards the next climb in the Paterberg. Again, Pogačar took the front with van der Poel following closely behind. Their power is quite unbelievable.
Van der Poel – following Pogačar up the Paterberg:
Average Power: 688w (9.2w/kg)
Average Gradient: 12.9 percent
The next series of climbs was the Koppenberg-Steenbeekdies-Taaienberg in succession, where van der Poel continued to push the pace with Pogačar. This is where the Slovenian went again, whittling down the lead group to just three in van der Poel, Valentin Madouas, and himself.
Van der Poel – Koppenberg-Steenbeekdies-Taaienberg Combo:
Average Power: 438w (5.8w/kg)
Normalized Power: 486w (6.5w/kg)
Koppenberg: 628w (8.4w/kg) for 1:43
Van der Poel’s effort on the Koppenberg in and of itself is among the world’s best, yet the hardest efforts were yet to come. After 15km of swapping turns at greater than 430w, the lead group hit the Kwaremont for the final time, with the Paterberg featuring a few kilometers later as the final climb in the race. Pogačar knew his chances against van der Poel in a sprint were slim, and so he went all-out in an attempt to drop the Dutchman.
Van der Poel – Hanging onto Pogačar’s wheel on the Kwaremont:
Average Power: 523w (7w/kg)
Peak 3-min Power: 546w (7.3w/kg)
Despite the incredible amount of fatigue coursing through Van der Poel’s legs after six hours of racing, he was able to produce nearly the same effort as before, once again hanging with Pogačar. Next up was the Paterberg, and the Slovenian’s final chance to drop van der Poel; but he couldn’t do it, and the Tour of Flanders was going to come down to a sprint.
Van der Poel – Following Pogačar up the Paterberg (again):
Average Power: 639w (8.5w/kg)
On the flat run-in to the finish line in Oudenaarde, it looked like Pogačar and van der Poel were taking it easy. In fact, they had a healthy gap to the group behind – Madouas and Dylan Van Baarle – but they were still pulling at ~400w into the headwind. But as they entered the final kilometer, the cat-and-mouse game began, with Pogačar sitting up so as not to set up van der Poel. Their 25-second lead evaporated in 700 meters. As Madouas and Van Baarle came sprinting to the lead two, van der Poel was ready to step on the gas, and with 200m to go, he hit his peak power of 1,406w.
Some say that Pogačar got boxed in; though that is true, I don’t think he had a chance. Van der Poel held nearly 1,400w (18.6w/kg) for 10 seconds on his way to the line, and you’re not coming around that. The Dutchman punched the air after winning De Ronde for the second time in his career, and fully announcing that his comeback is complete.
Van der Poel – Tour of Flanders finale:
Average Power: 368w (4.9w/kg)
Normalized Power: 426w (5.7w/kg)
Final Sprint Power: 1,194w (15.9w/kg) for 13 seconds
Peak Power: 1,406w (18.6w/kg)
How long did Mathieu van der Poel hold a normalized power of 400w? Three hours and four minutes, for the final 130km of the Tour of Flanders.
Rider:Mathieu van der Poel