For all the plaudits that have been deservedly directed at Alberto Bettiol in the last few days, we really do need to talk about Mathieu van der Poel’s Flanders fourth place finish. Not just impressive in the normal scheme of things, but more-or-less flipped the cardinal rules of one-day racing on their heads.
As the Dutch national road race champion, and with more cyclo-cross titles than you can wave a windmill at, he’s hardly come out of nowhere. At 24, he’s not exactly a babe in arms. Following his Dwars door Vlaanderen victory, the bookies narrowed Mathieu’s odds to 8-1 (or thereabouts) and made him third favourite before the race. There’s also the small matter of him being the son of 1986 Ronde winner, Adri van der Poel, so genes, yeah, he’s got ’em.
Nevertheless, there was no shortage of scoffing when dad said his boy was good enough to win the Ronde at his first attempt, in his first full spring spent on the road. Johan Museeuw told us that “to win the Tour of Flanders you have first to understand it. You have to ride it and learn”. Who were we to argue?
“We” are not Mathieu van der Poel who, even though he didn’t actually break the tape, managed to not only live up to his Ronde billing, but blow past it.
When he was left lying on the pavement clutching his shoulder for what seemed like an age, the DNF was so visibly written on the wall that even Eurosport’s Rob Hatch came close to calling it. (By the by, has anyone else noticed how good Mr Hatch is at avoiding making factual pronouncements as to a rider’s status or a race’s outcome until it’s been confirmed?)
We’ve always been told that you only get one chance in a race like Flanders. That’s what makes the Classics so cruel, and it’s precisely why some riders avoid them like the plague.
Not only did Van der Poel not scratch, he even – after battling through the Flanders field for 30k – made it back to the main group of contenders to start stirring things up again. Had he not had to burn through his reserves to do so, it’s easy to imagine him being the one rider willing to follow Bettiol when he went on the Oude Kwaremont. No games of chicken for him.
Discounting Danilith Nokere Koerse, Van der Poel’s one-day record this season is 1-4-1-4. He even won a stage of the Circuit Cycliste Sarthe. If he was Belgian they’d be calling him the new Boonen. What a relief it must be for him that he’s not.