Brutally enacted: Incomparable Mathieu van der Poel's dream Tour of Flanders

Mathieu van der Poel was in control throughout as he accomplished his dream: a long-range attack to win his third Tour of Flanders

In the end, all it took for Mathieu van der Poel to take yet another Tour of Flanders title was two attacks: one to dislodge riders from a front group that was swelling in numbers, and another to completely crush the remaining opposition and cruise to victory. The Alpecin-Deceuninck man’s latest success in wet, muddy conditions was his third in the last five editions of De Ronde, and this one was his most devastating, a ramping up of the pace 45km from the line on the Koppenberg that no one else could replicate, and then a turbo-charged time trial to the finish, the sort of move he dreamed of beforehand and brutally enacted.

Van der Poel was the race’s overwhelming favourite for a reason, and he was in control throughout; the only moment victory looked in peril was when he sat 20 seconds off a potent-looking leading group with 90km to go – but one bestial attack on a cobbled berg later and he was typically back in the frame. From there, he orchestrated the race like the intimidating, foreboding dominator of the Classics that he is: he had one of his servants – Gianni Vermeersch – play the role of bodyguard, ensuring that Mads Pedersen never really built a dangerous gap in what was otherwise a questionable attack from the Dane, and then Van der Poel initiated the move that shredded more than dozen from the lead group. A few kilometres after, with Pedersen fatigued and weakened as a result of his own unfathomable stubbornness to remain out front, and his sparring partner Wout van Aert watching the racing at home with his collarbone in a sling, the outcome was as predictable as it was ruthless.

At the bottom of the Koppenberg, the toughest of the mythical bergs that make up Belgium’s hardest race, Movistar’s unlikely leader of the race, Iván Cortina, was forced to dismount from his bike with an unfortunate mechanical, and within seconds he was witnessing the rainbow bands charge past him, fixated on landing his fifth Monument. While his positioning was flawless and ensured he wasn’t caught behind, Van der Poel was undoubtedly helped by every other rider in the leading group, with the exception of Matteo Jorgensen, also suffering the same fate as Cortina, their wheels slipping on the sodden, muddy cobbles, each of them unclipping and walking up the berg like thousands of amateurs were required to do in the sportive 24 hours earlier. 

It could reasonably be argued that Van der Poel benefited from the absence of Van Aert, profited from Pedersen’s tactics, and was lucky to not succumb to the same wheel spin nightmare endured by his rivals, but this was just another example of the Dutchman exhibiting a faultless marriage of panache and tactical canniness, brutally dispensing of the competition on his terms.

Is he better than this century’s other cobble kings, Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen? And where does he rank when comparing him against heroes from previous decades, such as Johan Museeuw, Rik Van Looy, Roger De Vlaeminck and, yes, the outright holder of the most Monument victories, Eddy Merckx? That debate warrants fervent discussion, and it seems almost certain that Van der Poel will add to his tally of five victories in the sport’s biggest one-day races. 

Whatever else the 29-year-old goes on to achieve, however many more times he lifts his bike above his head at the finish line like he did in Oudenaarde this weekend, his third Flanders triumph might not be remembered as a terrific race of sporting drama, but it will be recalled as the Monument in which Van der Poel most dictated the ebb and flow.

From the moment he signed on in the centre of Antwerp, his win felt inevitable - and he ensured that it was as justified as it was crushingly demoralising for his rivals. Who can stop him in Roubaix?

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