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Cycling superstar Mathieu van der Poel finished 3rd behind Gianni Vermeersch who won the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships on Sunday. Vermeersch was head and shoulders above the rest of the field, finishing nearly a minute ahead of his break mate, Daniel Oss, and almost two minutes ahead of headliner van der Poel.
At the first-ever gravel world champs, we saw a fascinating race unfold that was a mix of road racing tactics, cyclocross technique, and mountain biking skills. So it was no surprise to see both Vermeersch and van der Poel on the podium when both riders are Alpecin-Deceuninck professionals in both cyclocross and road racing.
After a season of high ups and downs — including a Monument and Grand Tour stage win — van der Poel was the number-one favorite for the inaugural Gravel World Championships, in Veneto, Italy. On a fast and dry 190km course, there would be plenty of action over the five hours of racing.
While we don’t have Vermeersch’s power file, we do have Van der Poel’s. And throughout the entire race in which Van der Poel averaged a normalized power of 339w, we can see how ridiculous the pace was from start to finish.
Here is a closer look at what it takes to finish on the podium of the UCI Gravel World Championships.
Perhaps the craziest part of the Veneto World’s course was that it started at the bottom of a 1km, 10% climb immediately followed by a switchback descent. Everyone on the start line knew the importance of this opening climb, as the peloton was likely to split multiple times in just the first kilometer.
Positioning is even more important in gravel racing than in road racing because the “roads” (i.e. dirt, gravel, and singletrack paths) are narrow and technical. In order to move up through the peloton, you need to risk riding off the racing line, which can spell disaster as the shoulders of gravel roads are often littered with sharp rocks and unseen potholes.
It was no surprise to see the four-time cyclocross World Champion leading the charge into the opening climb. Van der Poel rode a steady clip of nearly 600w for the entire climb, a mind-blowing pace knowing that there were still more than five hours of racing to go.
Average Power: 576w (7.7w/kg)
Just 10km later, the peloton hit the second and final climb of the entire race. With so few meters of elevation gain throughout the course, the climbers attacked as hard as possible to try and get an advantage.
In between the two climbs, Van der Poel was pulling at more than 400w to try and solidify the splits he had created on the opening climb. And he didn’t let up on the second climb where he held nearly 500w for five minutes. And keep in mind, there was still 180km to go.
Creating splits from 188km to 177km to go
Average Power: 370w (4.9w/kg)
Normalized Power: 399w (5.3w/kg)
Second climb: 484w (6.5w/kg) for 4:33
Fastest rider on the second climb: Miguel Angel Lopez in 4:06
After a rapid descent down from the second climb, the pace didn’t relent for nearly an hour as breakaway after breakaway tried to attack off the front. During a flat section around Lago di Fimon, Van der Poel averaged 400w for 12 minutes including attacks and massive pulls at 500-600w.
Trying to establish the break of the day
Average Power: 400w (5.3w/kg)
Normalized Power: 425w (5.7w/kg)
Massive attack: 482w (6.4w/kg) for 3:07
It took almost 80km before the winning breakaway of Gianni Vermeersch and Daniel Oss was able to go clear. And one look at Van der Poel’s power file shows how hard the race was from kilometer 0. This is the most underrated part of professional cycling that the TV cameras usually miss. The fight for the breakaway can often be harder than the race’s finale. We’re talking 30-50w more in the opening hour of the race compared to the final hour, and this goes for one-day Classics, Grand Tour stages, and the UCI Gravel World Championships.
First 65km of the UCI Gravel World Championships
Average Power: 338w (4.5w/kg)
Normalized Power: 379w (5.1w/kg)
For the next 80km, Van der Poel took it easy in the peloton as Vermeersch and Oss built up a five-minute lead. During this middle section of the race, Van der Poel averaged just 250w for two hours, which is comfortably within his Zone 2 aerobic threshold. That meant the Dutchman could clear the lactate from his legs, eat, drink, and recover in time for an explosive finale.
It wasn’t until the final 15km that Van der Poel started making some serious moves. You can see from the Dutchman’s power file that he hardly left off the gas in the final 22 minutes of the race. On a punchy and technical gravel course, Van der Poel kept his power incredibly steady, having just a 14w difference between his average power and normalized power in the finale — and that included two sprints of over 1200w.
Of all the impressive power numbers that were produced that day at the UCI Gravel World Championships, it was Van der Poel’s final sprint that blows them all out of the water. After five hours and 10 minutes of racing, after burning 5,300 kilojoules, Van der Poel cranked out a sprint at more than 1500w.
After taking a detailed look at Van der Poel’s Strava ride, his file seems to cut off just as his sprint power was still increasing. The Dutchman’s final three seconds of sprinting read “1502w” which is absolutely insane for someone who doesn’t count themselves as a traditional sprinter. Needless to say, Van der Poel promptly destroyed Greg Van Avermaet in the sprint for third, giving Van der Poel the bronze medal and a 1,2,3 finish for Alpecin-Deceuninck at the inaugural UCI Gravel World Championships.
Final 14km of the UCI Gravel World Championships
Average Power: 356w (4.7w/kg)
Normalized Power: 370w (5w/kg)
Final 4km: 393w (5.2w/kg)
Final sprint: Max power 1542w (20.6w/kg)
Power Analysis data courtesy of Strava
Strava sauce extension
Riders: Mathieu van der Poel