The Van der Poel rules: How to beat cycling's best Classics rider

The world champion will start the Tour of Flanders as the big favourite, but did Gent-Wevelgem highlight the weakness that his rivals need to exploit?

Clock10:02, Monday 25th March 2024
Mads Pedersen beat Mathieu van der Poel at Gent-Wevelgem in a two-up sprint

© Getty Images

Mads Pedersen beat Mathieu van der Poel at Gent-Wevelgem in a two-up sprint

For all his dominance, American basketball great, Michael Jordan had a challenge getting over the hump at the start of his career. For years, the Detroit Pistons foiled the greatest basketball player of all time with one particular strategy: The Jordan Rules.

The Jordan Rules are legendary within basketball and essentially amounted to continual and intensive defensive pressure meant to disrupt Jordan’s offensive rhythm. While they didn’t stop Jordan from winning his six titles, they prevented him from steamrolling to the eight or nine titles he could have won if those bad-boy Pistons had not foiled him and his team the Chicago Bulls for three straight seasons in the late 1980s.

When it comes to cycling, Mathieu van der Poel seems increasingly like the best analogue the sport has to Jordan. Wildly popular, devastatingly skilful and supremely elegant, the Alpecin-Deceuninck rider is for many the epitome of a great bike racer. Like Jordan, Van der Poel’s big triumphs are many of the defining moments of the era. Additionally, there might be a clear-cut playbook to beat Van der Poel just as the Jordan Rules foiled Jordan in the '80s.

While Van der Poel is statistically the best-cobbled Classics rider of this generation, there is one circumstance where he seems imminently beatable, which should provide hope for his rivals in the lead-up to the Tour of Flanders: long, drawn out one-on-one sprints.

Van der Poel's Achilles heel exposed at Gent-Wevelgem?

At Gent-Wevelgem we saw the most recent example of this. Van der Poel drove hard throughout the race, whittling down his rivals until there was only one rider left. In this case, it was Mads Pedersen of Lidl-Trek. In the final, Pedersen was forced to ride the front, with Van der Poel sitting in the Dane’s draft as the presence of Jasper Philipsen behind - the world champion's teammate and recent Milan-San Remo winner - forced Pedersen to ride to keep the duo ahead.

Nevertheless, Pedersen used the position of being on the front to launch the sprint on his terms and hit out early and hard, which paid off with the win. For other riders, and potentially against other opponents, a sprint from the front with 250 metres to go is a death sentence. It would be akin to a lead-out for the rider in the wheels.

Yet if history is a guide, it is consistently the best way to find success versus Van der Poel. Consider the 2021 Tour of Flanders.

In 2021 Van der Poel was once again out front at the race on the hunt for a second consecutive Tour of Flanders title and the Dutch star was joined by another Danish Classics rider, except this time it was Kasper Asgreen and not Mads Pedersen. Asgreen was on flying form that spring and was part of a strong team headlined by Julian Alaphilippe in the rainbow jersey. A win at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic the week before Flanders showed that Asgreen was a real contender for the first cobbled Monument.

Nevertheless, Van der Poel was also very much in shape, as his dominant win at Strade Bianche that year showed. When the two came to the finish in Oudenaarde, all eyes were on Van der Poel to dispatch Asgreen just as he had dispatched the faster Wout van Aert the previous year for his first Tour of Flanders victory.

Asgreen, however, had other plans.

The Dane hit the wind hard with exactly 250 metres to go. Van der Poel, who had been leading the duo into the final, duly began sprinting. 200 metres later, Van der Poel looked to have done it. He held off Asgreen’s charge and looked set to accelerate away from his rival. But the acceleration never came. Instead, it was Asgreen who pulled ahead as Van der Poel eased up and shook his head in defeat.

Fast-forward to 2024, and Van der Poel was shaking his head once again as Pedersen surged ahead in the final 50 metres of Gent-Wevelgem, again 200 metres from the start of the sprint where Van der Poel seemed to be sitting in the box seat to pick up his second victory in three days.

There are other examples too, albeit less stark than a two-up sprint, where the long sprint has left Van der Poel shaking his head. In 2022, Biniam Girmay got the better of Van der Poel with a long sprint after a hard stage of the Giro d’Italia. Likewise, in 2023 Van Aert got the better of Van der Poel and Tadej Pogačar at the E3 Saxo Classic with a long kick.

While there are countless examples of Van der Poel prevailing in small group sprints, the trend is there to start to wonder if this is a repeatable playbook to stifle the man who seems so formidable in the races that suit his style.

It should be said that Van der Poel’s defeat on Sunday in Wevelgem has a couple of other explanations. First and foremost, Lidl-Trek are very good. The team have brought an increased vigour and resources to the Classics. On Sunday in particular, the team played a blinder, keeping their front foot forwards but placing the emphasis on others to ride.

Secondly, Van der Poel was probably tired. He admitted as much after the race, and if the result sheet is anything to go off of, it seems he was the only major player from E3 who made a big splash at Gent-Wevelgem, beyond Mads Pedersen who ended up playing a more supporting role in the final at E3.

What conclusions can we draw?

To return to the basketball analogy, once Jordan cracked those pesky Pistons, he went on an untouchable run of six NBA titles. Similarly, Van der Poel could go on a run where he doesn’t lose in a small group sprint again for years, mainly by using his strength to avoid sprints altogether. Whittling things down was a harder task at Gent-Wevelgem but if he repeats his E3 performance at the Tour of Flanders, it will be hard for anyone to stop the flying Dutchman from launching a race-winning solo foray.

Then again, what should we expect if Van der Poel rolls into that familiar finish in Flanders with a rider or two in his wheels? Reason would suggest they should heed the lessons of history, if they can get to the finish with Van der Poel at all. With a rider as strong as Van der Poel, sometimes sturdy rules are needed.

For the latest news, interviews and analysis from the world of professional cycling, be sure to check out the Racing tab on the GCN website and visit our essential guide to The Spring Classics to stay up to date with all of the action from cycling's most exciting season.

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