It’s Van der Poel’s world, and we’re all living in it – Is the world champion going to be unbeatable at the Tour of Flanders?

A dominant showing at E3 Saxo Classic paints a nervous picture for Mathieu van der Poel’s rivals just over one week out from De Ronde

You can attack him, you can outnumber him, you can anticipate him, but on the terrain that suits him best, Mathieu van der Poel will always get you back. The Dutch rider’s exhibition at the 2024 E3 Saxo Classic was a cut above. There was no one with the same speed and fluidity on the cobbles as him, there was no one else with the bravery to pedal around wet, slippery corners, there was no one else holding their position in the gutter as smoothly, balancing risk and reward to perfection. When it comes to racing in Flanders, Van der Poel rides those small streets and steep bergs like he was born to do it. And, right now, there seems to be nothing that anyone can do to stop him.

There were moments in today's race when it looked like things just might have changed this Classics season. In the opening 100 kilometres, Lidl-Trek had numbers at the front of the race and they sent the likes of Jasper Stuyven, Alex Kirsch and Mads Pedersen off the front of the group of favourites, forcing others to do the work to bring things back together. Movistar too rode an impressive race with Rémi Cavagna and Lorenzo Milesi in the breakaway of the day and Spanish national champion Oier Lazkano attacking like a true Flandrian from the chase behind. Even Julian Alaphilippe looked like he could be back at one point for Soudal–Quick-Step, showing glimpses of his former self when he attacked with 70 kilometres of the race remaining. As these moves came thick and fast from other teams, it almost seemed as if the peloton had stepped up a level this season, and there would be no dominance from the usual suspects. At times, Van der Poel looked worryingly outnumbered – if it was any other rider, they would have been in trouble. But, as we all know, Van der Poel is not like any other rider.

In fact, you might have thought that the world champion could be intimidated by the team support that his rival, Wout van Aert, had ahead of today’s race. The Dutch squad came with a line-up of superstars, many of whom could be in with their own chance of taking victory in a race like E3 on their day. While the team was centered around Van der Poel’s long-time rival, Wout van Aert, riders like Matteo Jorgenson, Tiesj Benoot, Jan Tratnik and Dylan van Baarle have also contested for victories in Belgian one-day races in the past. None of this seemed to bother Van der Poel, though, who, rather than worrying about the number of men in yellow he had around him, constantly threw his own attacks into the race, unafraid of the fact he had fewer teammates, unconcerned about the risks he was taking using so much energy early on. This tenacious, raw and daring way of racing is why he has the rainbow stripes on his back.

In the end, the strength that Visma-Lease a Bike appeared to have on the start line at E3 Saxo Classic eventually amounted to very little. It’s true that there was bad luck for the favourite team with crashes for Van Aert, Benoot and Per Strand Hagenes, as well an untimely mechanical for Van Baarle. Everyone in the race will have their excuses for allowing one rider to win by a minute and a half today, but the results sheet speaks for itself, and it shows Van der Poel as the strongest rider, by a big margin.

What does this all mean for the Tour of Flanders coming up in just one week time? Will the Dutch powerhouse be able to do the same thing all over again? Was there anything anyone else could have done at E3 to stop him?

Visma-Lease a Bike will say yes. Van Aert was close to Van der Poel when he made his move on the Taaienberg, and the Belgian is still yet to be at his best form having only recently returned from a training camp at altitude. If he hadn’t crashed at the most untimely moment on the Paterberg, perhaps Van Aert could have held on to the wheel of Van der Poel and it would have come down to a sprint between them at the finish line. The sheer fact that the Visma-Lease a Bike rider was able to get back on his bike after his crash, regain contact with the group in front and then attack to bring the gap to Van der Poel down to ten seconds at one stage should give him confidence in his ability. In nine days, when he stands on the start line in Antwerp ahead of one of his biggest goals of the season, Van Aert’s form could have stepped up another level, and it could be him who will be putting the pressure on over the hellingen of Flanders.

Other teams such as Lidl-Trek, UAE Team Emirates and Movistar also now have an advantage ahead of the Tour of Flanders because they know how good Van der Poel is. E3 Saxo Classic is a race where the favourites for De Ronde show their hand, and the world champion can no longer keep under wraps how strong he is on the cobbles. Going into the Tour of Flanders, all eyes will be on Van der Poel, and each team will be discussing how to beat him. If riders like Jorgenson, Stuyven and Lazkano can better anticipate these long range moves from Van der Poel – perhaps by getting themselves in the early break of the day, there won’t be as much pressure to try and follow the world champion when he inevitably launches his unstoppable attacks on the steepest climbs in the race.

What Van der Poel did in today's wet and windy warm-up race for the Tour of Flanders was breathtakingly impressive. The impact of Van Aert’s crash can’t be fully measured, but anyone watching the form and skill of the world champion would argue that he looked to be the strongest in the race – while Van Aert rocked and rolled over his bike on the climbs, Van der Poel was stoic and smooth, his mouth barely even turning into a grimace. But, it should be noted that E3 is not the Tour of Flanders, and we still have over a week to go until that race rolls around. Armed with knowledge of each other’s form and the understanding that nothing is a given in professional cycling, Van der Poel’s third De Ronde victory is far from a done deal. There’s still everything to play for in Belgium.

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