March 12, 2021 0 Comments
Words by Shane Stokes
Photos by LaPresse.
Mathieu van der Poel’s victory in last Saturday’s Strade Bianche was one of the most impressive displays of recent years. The young Dutchman dominated the race, humbling more experienced rivals along the roads of Tuscany. That plus his win on Friday’s third stage of Tirreno-Adriatico puts him as a contender for Milan-San Remo but, longer term, what kind of future is in store?
Mathieu van der Poel wins the 2021 Strade Bianche. Photo © Gian Mattia D'Alberto (LaPresse).
It was a clinical elimination, applied in two steps. With 12.2 kilometres remaining in Strade Bianche, Mathieu van der Poel moved off Julian Alaphilippe’s left shoulder and unleashed a surging, stinging attack.
The explosive effort immediately distanced all of his rivals. World champion Alaphilippe was the only one able to keep him in sight as they crested the Le Tolfe climb and, cutting corners so closely that he almost brushed the stone walls of a church with his shoulder, he clawed his way back onto the Dutchman’s wheel.
2019 Tour de France winner Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) found it more difficult. It took him a full kilometre and a half of chasing to finally bridge the gap. The others who had been in the break, namely last year’s winner Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), 2020 Tour de France champion Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), Tom Pidcock (Ineos) and Michael Gogl (Qhubeka-Assos) found their chances immediately ended by Van der Poel’s move.
The Dutch Alpecin-Fenix rider did the lion’s share of the pacemaking between there and the finish. Bernal lacked the zest of the other two riders; Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) did what he could, but he admitted to Van der Poel that his legs were running out of pep.
The frank admission sealed his fate. Van der Poel led up the race’s final climb, almost ignoring his two rivals on the Via Santa Caterina, and then launched another searing acceleration with 500 metres to go. As TV commentators ooed and aaahed, stunned by the surge, the gap immediately opened. Van der Poel crested the steepest section well clear and pushed on to the finish line in Siena’s Piazza del Campo. Alaphilppe lost a cool five seconds in that last 500 metres, while Bernal was a full twenty seconds back.
The display brought back memories of Van der Poel’s victory in the 2019 Amstel Gold Race. The manner of the win was completely different, and yet the dominance was the same. He led a long chase throughout the finale of the Dutch Classic, driving the group he was in to catch the leaders close to the line, and still had the strength to win the sprint.
Just as he did in Strade Bianche, he left his rivals open-mouthed and the commentators lost for words.
Sean Kelly is well acquainted with the Van der Poel name. During the 1980’s, the-then world number one tussled with Mathieu’s father Adri in many of cycling’s biggest one day races. One of their most notable duels was in the 1986 Tour of Flanders where an over-confident Kelly led out a five-man sprint but faded, being pipped by Van der Poel right before the line. He got his revenge a week later when he beat Van der Poel and two other riders to take Paris-Roubaix.
Since the end of his career Kelly has kept a keen eye on the sport and regularly displays his knowledge of professional cycling and sharp powers of analysis as a TV commentator.
He told Conquista this week that he was wowed by what Mathieu van der Poel did in Strade Bianche. “You could see his strength when he attacked the first time in that final. When he hit them there, he just blew that group apart. Although Bernal and Alaphilippe clawed their way back to him, he knew he was in control.
“And then when they got to the final climb, you could see that he wasn’t concerned…he just rode the front, made a real hard pace, and then decided, ‘well now I am going to go.’ He just stood on the pedals and that was that…
“Alaphilippe was suffering a little bit but still, in a final like that, he is always so difficult to manage. But he had no answer to that unbelievable turn of pace van der Poel had on that final climb.”
Kelly is right to note Alaphilippe’s own ability. The Frenchman has shown his own explosiveness numerous times in the past, including his victory on the ramp of the Mur de Huy in the 2018 La Flèche Wallonne, and again the following year. His power was also seen in the 2019 Strade Bianche, in his win in that year’s Milan-San Remo, during the 2019 Tour de France and, of course, in winning last year’s world championships.
In short, Alaphilippe is a hugely gifted rider who has already amassed a glittering palmares. And yet he was calmly dispatched by his younger rival last Saturday.
Kelly sees a reason behind what we saw in Strade Bianche. “That explosive power is definitely from cyclo-cross,” he said, referring to Van der Poel’s considerable off-road success, including multiple world titles. “When you are doing cyclo-cross, there are sections where you have to make that huge effort, that explosive stuff. That is definitely from the cyclo-cross, that is where he got it.”
And yet it’s not quite as simple as that. “To be able to produce it at the end of a very difficult race…a lot of guys have that explosiveness in cyclo-cross, but if you put them at the end of a 200+, 220 kilometre race, such a difficult one over those sand roads, then it’s different.. To still have it then is something special.”
Van der Poel’s talent is twofold, mixing explosiveness with endurance. He’s lethal on punchy climbs but also well able to attack from a long way out. The latter is perhaps genetic; his father Adri was a very successful bike rider, but so too his grandfather Raymond Poulidor. He won the Vuelta a España in 1964 and finished on the Tour de France podium no less than eight times, with three of those as runner-up.
Van der Poel has clearly inherited their talent. It remains to be seen just how far he can go in the future but, short-term, Kelly believes he could potentially add this month’s Milan-San Remo to his previous successes in the Amstel Gold Race, the Tour of Flanders and Strade Bianche.
“If he gets to the Poggio and he still feels like he was in Strade Bianche… When he attacks, the way he goes away, you could maybe pick out one or two riders who might be able to follow him. [Wout] Van Aert would be one, Alaphilippe too.
“The power he turns out when he goes is just crazy stuff. There is just something a bit extra there, that explosivity is something we haven’t seen before. I can’t recall anybody having such an explosive finish at the end of a difficult race.”
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