Mathieu van der Poel doesn’t need to prove anything. We already know that the Dutchman, the son of former pro Adri and grandson of Raymond Poulidor, is the best Classics rider of his generation. He can give himself easy days at this Tour de France, conserving his energy for terrain that actually suits him.
But no. Van der Poel is hellbent on securing win after win for his Alpecin-Deceuninck team, and it doesn’t matter that it’s not him going up to the podium to soak up the plaudits.
For the tall and broad superstar still a couple of years shy of his 30s has added another skill to his repertoire: the role of the best leadout man in the business. Okay, perhaps that’s recency bias, and Danny van Poppel and Michael Mørkøv would certainly counter that claim, but in two successive days at the Tour de France, Van der Poel has been absolutely pivotal in Jasper Philipsen’s two victories.
Acting as the final man in the sprint train, taking up position at the front with just a few hundred metres to go, Van der Poel has unleashed a rapid turn of speed that Philipsen only needs to come off and burst to the line. Philipsen is getting the glory, but the real MVP is Van der Poel.
He predicted as much before the Tour’s start in Bilbao, too. The questions were all about whether or not he could gain the race’s first or second yellow jersey in the Basque Country, but he preferred to speak about his new job - that of helping out. He called Philipsen one of his best friends, but few expected their combination to be as devastating and lethal. It has truly been the revelation of the race so far.
The moment Van der Poel takes up position with the finishing line closing in, there’s no one else in the world you’d rather take the wind in front of you. Philipsen is an immense talent, clearly the fastest sprinter on the planet right now, winner of four consecutive Tour bunch sprints, but cycling’s a team sport and to win sprints in the biggest race of all. Even the best depend on assistance. Philipsen has a star who transcends the sport aiding him. It’s a blessed situation.
“It’s a privilege to have Mathieu as the last man,” Philipsen beamed. “I didn’t know he still had this in the tank but then he delivered me with 150m to go.” For Van der Poel, he was just as content. “The fact that Jasper wins makes it twice as beautiful. It’s nice to see him finish it again.”
The day, a hot and sticky one that finished on a motor circuit just outside of a sleepy village, ended slightly sourly in that Van der Poel was demoted six places to 22nd for pushing Biniam Girmay. The announcement came late, but there was no complaining - it was, after all, a hectic and dangerous sprint with a multitude of crashes. The main takeaway, however, is still Van der Poel's conversion into a sprinter’s best right hand man.
It's a sign of his confidence and ease with his position in the world that has partly led to him playing this role. A year ago he was exhausted having ridden the Giro d’Italia and left the Tour after the first week. There were question marks around his fitness, his injury record and his longevity. This season he’s answered all of them, winning Milan-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix and the Belgium Tour, and so upbeat, so positive is he, that he can switch roles from top guy to second guy without fuss.
How Jumbo-Visma could learn from this. Van der Poel’s career-long adversary, Wout van Aert, has cut a frustrated figure in the Tour’s first four stages, and though Jumbo deny that there’s a conflict or a rift, the tension is tangible. Van Aert would dearly love one of Jumbo’s riders to provide the same level of support that Van der Poel is to Philipsen.
As the races move onto the Pyrenees and then back north and east towards the Alps, Van der Poel will have his chances, too. With this form, this turn of speed and this energy, he will surely win himself.
Alpecin-Deceuninck are on course to be the team of the Tour, and Van der Poel is on path to supersede rival Van Aert as the race’s MVP.