“A special win in a special race.” - Mathieu van der Poel
Sometimes in bike racing there are victories that just feel like they were meant to be. It’s like regardless of what any other team or rider decides to do, there is one person who will take the win because it is what someone, somewhere is deciding should happen. Whether this is just an illusion created by the flawless and effortless style of a spectacular bike rider, or if there really is a sort of supernatural force influencing events that fit so beautifully into the sport’s history, is a matter of individual beliefs. Either way, Mathieu van der Poel’s victory at Milan-Sanremo today felt like one of those things that was destined to happen.
There were some teams that seemed to do pretty much everything right throughout the 295km race. Take Bahrain-Victorious, for example, who had five riders perfectly positioned to execute a flawless lead out to the foot of the Poggio and set up Matej Mohorič, or UAE Team Emirates, who rode hard on the Cipressa to drop some of the key sprinters and then had Tim Wellens assist Tadej Pogačar to launch his move on the Poggio. Or even Lotto Dstny, who, for a team recently relegated to Pro Continental level, rode impressively to give Caleb Ewan the best chance at finally getting a win in Sanremo. Think even of the Ineos Grenadiers or Trek-Segafredo, both teams poised confidently at the front of the race right from the flag drop, looking alert and ready.
Among all this, when commentators were lauding the efforts of the well-organised teams or people were tweeting praise at those who seemed to be protecting their leaders, the eventual winner of the race was nowhere to be seen. He was hidden in the bunch, despite being one of the most famous faces in the sport, he remained, quite spectacularly, quiet and unseen. He was so imperceptible that you would be forgiven for forgetting to even think of him when speculating on who was looking the strongest during the race. Even Van der Poel’s team, Alpecin-Deceuninck, were rarely visible at the front of the peloton, only sending one or two riders at a time to contribute to the chase.
There was a moment when his tall and broad frame suddenly appeared at the front of the race: right at the top of the Cipressa, the penultimate climb of the day. Perhaps it was then that we should have realised that today hearts would be broken by Mathieu van der Poel. On the descent down from the Cipressa, Van der Poel even found himself leading the bunch, creating a small gap on his rivals, one that looked like it could tempt him into attacking with 20 kilometres of the race still remaining. It was there that he exhibited maturity and patience, aware that it was too early to make a move, disappearing back into the peloton to wait until the moment came again.
On the Poggio, the race’s decisive, final climb, Van der Poel’s tactical masterclass continued. When Pogačar made his attack with 6.5 kilometres of the race remaining, the Dutchman did not panic, instead sitting behind Wout van Aert and allowing him to do the chasing. In a sport where saving even a marginal ounce of energy can make the difference between winning and losing, it was at this very moment that Van der Poel gave himself the upper hand.
Image: James Startt
When he made his winning attack just a couple of hundred metres later, everyone else in the leading quadruplet of riders had used their energy and simply had nothing left to follow. It’s so rare that we see grimaces on the faces of Pogačar or Van Aert like we did today and that is a testament to the supreme strength and tactical prowess of Van der Poel.
Once he had a gap, Van der Poel had to then rely on the other big weapons in his armoury: his bike-handling skills and raw strength. No doubt helped by the tailwind, the Dutch rider had to time trial to the line, forcing every watt through the pedals and shaving every line through the corners so he took the shortest and fastest route possible. He didn’t even seem to have to grit his teeth, it looked effortless, flawless and easy. Like he possessed a superhuman strength that the rest of the peloton could only observe and admire, there was nothing they could do to stop him from getting that gap and staying away until the finish line. It didn’t matter that their teams had done the perfect lead outs or that they’d been better organised or positioned throughout the day. Van der Poel’s win just felt like destiny.
Part of this feeling comes from the history that his victory is wrapped in. It has been 62 years since the Alpecin-Deceuninck rider’s grandfather, Raymond Poulidor, won Milan-Sanremo and when Van der Poel took the win today and looked up at the sky, it was like he felt the weight and importance of that. He has carried on the legacy of a family that has roots laid deep within the world of professional cycling.
So, while the peloton catches its breath after the second fastest ever edition of Milan-Sanremo and spectators' heart rates return back to normal after being enthralled by what is arguably the most exciting 30 minutes of bike racing throughout the whole season, there is little left to do other than admire the supremacy of Mathieu van der Poel today. In a perfect cocktail of skill, strength, patience, bravery and perhaps a little bit of fate, the Dutchman won one of the hardest bike races to win in a commandeering style. Gefeliciteerd, MVDP.
Cover image: Getty