Resilience, patience and power take Mathieu van der Poel to Tour of Flanders greatness

World champion says his career is already a success and any records are a bonus after capturing third Flanders title

Clock17:40, Sunday 31st March 2024
Mathieu van der Poel solos to a third Tour of Flanders title

© Getty Images

Mathieu van der Poel solos to a third Tour of Flanders title

Never in doubt. That was the feeling that came crashing home when Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) made his winning move at the Tour of Flanders with 45km to go.

The world champion, resplendent in his rainbow bands, carried himself clear on the slippery slopes of the Koppenberg before time-trialing his way to the finish with just over a minute on his nearest rivals. It was peak Van der Poel but a perhaps more nuanced victory than we’d seen before from the Dutchman in a Monument.

He was strong, of course, but his team were vital, while resilience and patience were as important as his own power on the Koppenberg.

All week, especially after the injuries sustained by Wout van Aert and Mads Pedersen, Van der Poel was proclaimed as the champion in waiting, and despite this being far from his most dominant display on the bike, it was still more than enough to solidify himself as one of just seven male riders to win the race three times.

The 29-year-old also crossed the line to become the first male rider to win the race in the world champion’s jersey since Peter Sagan in 2016 and aligned himself as the best one-day cobbles rider of his generation. Of that, there’s no doubt now.

"My career is already way more than I ever expected so I just see everything now as a bonus and try to get the best out of myself and then the records will follow but it’s not that I really want to focus on them,” he modestly said as he sat down in front of the media after six gruelling hours of rain, crashes and cold conditions.

“I’m really fucked, to be honest. It will take time to realise what I’ve done but for sure it’s something that I could never dream of doing, as the world champion, winning De Ronde. That’s something special.”

A different form of victory

This was certainly not Van der Poel’s most dominant performance. He even admitted that his solo attack and victory in E3 Saxo Classic a fortnight earlier was more impressive on the eye but this was a different form of victory.

What stood out, in particular, was just how well-drilled his Alpecin-Deceuninck team were on the day. Much was made in the pre-race preamble of how Visma-Lease a Bike could disrupt the Dutch rider’s rhythm, and how teams could gang up on the favourite by attacking from much further out. They tried but they never landed a single blow.

Mads Pedersen was particularly impressive, the Dane throwing caution to the wind by attacking several times, most effectively with 86km to go, in a bid to dismantle Alpecin-Deceuninck’s engine room. It was brave, and defiant but ultimately futile as Van der Poel’s entourage kept the race within check before their leader attacked with 55km to go on the Kwaremont.

That move was reeled in by plucky Oier Lazkano (Movistar) but the second acceleration on the Koppenberg will be played over and over in years to come as fans look back to witness a cool, calm and collected Van der Poel power up the ice-like climb with seated ease as his rivals all around him falter to the point of falling off or being reduced to walkers.

“I never do a recon of this race because I know it pretty well. We’ve all seen the images in the past when we saw the Koppenberg pretty wet, and what chaos it is. I also know it from cyclo-cross when it’s a bit muddy there. So I knew it would be a crucial point,” he said.

He couldn’t have done it alone, however. The fact that only one of his teammates, Gianni Vermeersch, finished the race said more about the squad’s selective sacrifice than any hint of weakness, and the world champion paid his respects in due course.

“I think one of our benefits is that the whole team rides for me,” he said.

“That makes it quite easy actually. They give 110 per cent. We knew already that other teams would start attacking from far away and I think our team did an amazing job to keep everything under control. Like I said, that’s all I asked for because, at a certain point, the strongest will have to battle it out.

“That was also one of the hardest Tour of Flanders that I ever did. The first hour was fast, and then with the rainy conditions you had to go full on the climbs just to get to the top. It was a really hard one. For sure, this is my favourite race of the year. I fell in love with the race and it suits me the best. I like it.”

The next stop is Paris-Roubaix, and dreams of completing the double for the first time in his career. It will not be easy, but if Flanders proved one thing it was that Van der Poel can win - and win big - even when he’s not on one of his best days and when the pressure is at its highest.

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