E3 Saxo Classic: Mathieu van der Poel powers to victory as Wout van Aert crashes

World champion puts everyone to the sword with a 44km solo break on his 2024 cobbles debut

Clock15:32, Friday 22nd March 2024
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin - Deceuninck) attacks before sealing the win at E3 Saxo Classic

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Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin - Deceuninck) attacks before sealing the win at E3 Saxo Classic

Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) once again proved his status as the world’s best Spring Classics rider in the men’s peloton with a dominant victory in the E3 Saxo Classic.

The world champion attacked several times during a brutally tough race before powering clear from a group of elite favourites on the Paterberg with just under 44km remaining.

Jasper Stuyven (Lidl-Trek) beat Wout van Aert (Visma-Lease a Bike) in battle for the final two steps on the podium.

Van der Poel made his move just seconds before Van Aert crashed on the wet cobbles, and despite a brave fightback from the Belgian, Van der Poel had more than enough to hold on and take his first road victory of the season, on just his second day of racing.

With just over a week to go until the Tour of Flanders, Van der Poel has firmly established himself as the rider to beat. His performance on Friday was faultless a demonstration of both power and finesse as he swatted away attacks from Visma-Lease a Bike, Lidl-Trek and a plucky Oier Lazkano (Movistar) before unleashing an unstoppable move on the lower slopes of the Paterberg.

Van Aert hit the deck just as he fought to get on the Dutch rider’s wheel and looked to be dead and buried before launching his own attack on the next climb of the Oude Kwaremont. The gap between the pair had been over a minute but dropped to just 12 seconds at one point, and it looked as though the two long-time rivals might link up before the last 25km of racing but Van Aert was unable to match Van der Poel’s relentless pace.

With 5km to go Van Aert cracked and was caught by Jasper Stuyven. The pair traded turns on the run-in to the finish but as the conditions worsened in the heavy rain only Van der Poel was smiling as he crossed the line alone.

Van Aert, exhausted both mentally and physically, barely lifted himself for the sprint for second, with Stuyven taking the honours just before Tim Wellens (UAE Team Emirates) took fourth ahead of the group of chasers.

“The team was incredibly strong today and we always have one goal in mind," Van der Poel said at the finish.

"The guys did an awesome job putting me in the front, also with Søren [Kragh Andersen] who was quite important in the end for me. I am super happy, I didn’t expect it, I thought I needed a few more races to get to this level. I hope I get recovered from this one for Sunday [for Gent-Wevelgem] because I have to say I was pretty cooked by the end."

Pre-race favourites set for Classics clash

At the start line in Harelbeke, much of the pre-race talk centred around the expected tussle between Van Aert, who had just returned from an extensive trip at altitude, and Van der Poel, who had played such a pivotal role in Jasper Philipsen’s win at Milan-San Remo a week earlier.

Their mouth-watering duel would have to wait as the early skirmishes saw several attacks and crashes. Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-EasyPost) was one of the early casualties, crashing before eventually pulling out of the race with his Tour of Flanders chances now up in the air.

Emil Herzog (Bora-Hansgrohe), Lorenzo Milesi, Remi Cavagna (Movistar), Jannik Steimle (Q36.5 Pro Cycling), Niklas Märkl (dsm-firmenich PostNL), Mathis Le Berre (Arkéa-B&B Hotels) Jelle Vermoote (Bingoal WB), Jonas Abrahamsen (Uno-X Mobility), Ivo Oliveira (UAE Emirates), and Sander De Pestel (Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale) became the main break of the day and on the Kruisberg climb with 100km to go their gap stood at 4:41.

Soudal Quick-Step, without a main favourite for the race, attempted to prompt a chase and split the main field with Gianni Moscon hitting the front with 90km to go but the race didn’t splinter until the Taaienberg when Lidl-Trek’s numerical superiority became apparent.

On the same climb Van der Poel put in his first leg-testing attack, and was quickly joined by Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek), Van Aert and Stuyven, but the quartet were quickly reeled in before Pedersen moved clear again with 75km to go.

Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal Quick-Step) jumped from the pack soon after but there was a general regrouping on the Boigneberg as the break’s advantage began to tumble.

Another probing attack from the world champion came with 66km to go but when that was nullified by Lidl-Trek the strung-out remnants of the peloton hit the Stationsberg with the break just 23 seconds up the road.

Lazkano put in a major attack at the foot of the climb before the Spanish champion was passed by Van de Poel and Van Aert. Lazkano wasn’t done yet, and when the favourites briefly sat up at the top of the climb he inched clear and made it to the five riders still in the break on the Kapelberg.

Paterberg shapes the race

That move proved futile, however, with another general regrouping before the Paterberg but on the lower slopes Van der Poel hit the front and stamped on the pedals. Van Aert, who had been glued to his rival’s wheel throughout the last 50km found himself caught out, and as he looked to pass Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) his front wheel slipped out and the Belgian hit the deck. With 43.7km to go, Van der Poel clear, and Van Aert at a standstill, the race looked over.

Van Aert is nothing if not a fighter, though, and after keeping his cool he used Matteo Jorgensen to keep the gap to Van der Poel to a reasonable 34 seconds as the Oude Kwaremont approached.

The Belgian then countered on the iconic climb and as he crested the top of the ascent the gap to Van der Poel had been cut to 28 seconds. The world champion still looked comfortable, and even when Van Aert closed to within an agonising 13 seconds, it never truly looked as though the Alpecin rider was in any danger.

On the final climb of the Tiegemberg 13 seconds soon stretched back out, and on the flat 25km run-in back to Harelbeke the gap only moved one way, first to 30 seconds and as the heaven opened Van Aert began to truly crack – in both body and spirit.

By the time Stuyven made contact the Visma leader was on his knees, as up front Van der Poel began celebrating with 1.3km to go.

The crash certainly affected Van Aert, of that there’s no doubt, but he was reactive rather than proactive, whereas Van der Poel attacked at will and never once looked in trouble. This race might be seen as a mini-Tour of Flanders but the gap between the pre-race favourites at the finish was anything but mini. It was massive.

Race Results


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4H 39' 28"


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+ 1' 31"


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Team Visma | Lease a Bike

+ 1' 34"


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UAE Team Emirates

+ 1' 48"


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Team Visma | Lease a Bike

+ 1' 50"


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NARVAEZ Jhonnatan

INEOS Grenadiers

+ 1' 52"


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UAE Team Emirates

+ 2' 48"


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