‘Beating him was impossible’ - Mathieu van der Poel is the ‘alien’ at the Tour of Flanders

Riders say there was nothing to be done in response to the world champion’s supreme display of strength in Belgium

He looked pristine in his rainbow jersey the morning of the race, when the sun was still shining in Flanders. Every part of his set-up was polished: his Canyon bike glistening, his skinsuit perfectly fitted, the frames of his Oakley glasses glinting in the light. Everyone’s eyes were on him, from spectators idling for a free bottle or selfie, to his rivals checking his form on race morning. People would be watching him for the rest of the day, and Mathieu van der Poel was well aware of it. Some might have felt a weight of pressure or expectation – the Dutch rider was the favourite to win in the Tour of Flanders by far – but the spotlight, it seems, is where Van der Poel thrives.

When he eventually made his somewhat expected winning move on the Koppenberg mid-way through the race, as others stumbled and faltered behind, the world champion’s face barely even registered a grimace. His skinsuit might have been stained with mud and grit from the rainy Belgian roads at that point, but Van der Poel’s souplesse and style made up for it. He was a different level on the bike –once he had his gap, his body language and determined style told you that he was going to win the race. The seconds between him and the chasing group only went up. Van der Poel was strongest, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop him.

“He is the world champion, he showed today he is the champion. How he rode was impressive, he was super strong, I think everybody tried today to find a way to beat him but it was impossible,” third-place finisher in the Tour of Flanders, Nils Politt, commented after the race with a wry shrug of the shoulders. “He was the strongest. We have one guy in our team with Tadej [Pogačar], he’s the same, some guys are like this.”

It’s true that riders like Van der Poel and Pogačar have created an entirely new category for themselves in the peloton: the entirely unstoppable supertalents. For those who are up against them, remaining hopeful that victories are still possible against this swashbuckling, attacking generation can be a challenge. Magnus Sheffield of the Ineos Grenadiers, who rode to a career-best sixth place in De Ronde this year, explained how he tries to keep things in perspective.

“I grew up racing cyclo-cross and Van der Poel was a big idol of mine, but I do have to remind myself that everyone is human at the end of the day, we’re all doing the same thing, though there are guys that you call aliens like Van der Poel, [Wout] van Aert, even Jonas [Vingegaard] and Pogačar,” Sheffield commented. “I think Van der Poel is an incredible rider but at the end of the day, he has two legs and is no different than the rest of us.”

Once he’d crossed the line and lifted his bike in the air as a victory celebration after taking yet another Ronde van Vlaanderen win, Van der Poel carried the same swagger he’d shown at the start of the race to the post-race press conference. After the show he’d just put on, who could deny him of it? 

When journalists asked him how he felt about fans booing him on some of the crucial climbs, Van der Poel simply responded: “I was busy with winning the race, so I couldn’t care less to be honest.”

The world champion admitted he hadn’t even done a recon of the parcours in Flanders because he “knows them so well” and has tackled the Koppenberg before in cyclo-cross, which was enough to know what to expect. Even if they know the roads, there’s few riders who would have confidence in themselves to win Flanders without even checking out the course a few days before. But this is who Van der Poel is – he backs himself and is fully backed by his team, too.

“The whole team just rides for me,” he stated, matter-of-factly. “That makes it quite easy actually and they give 110%. We knew already other teams would start attacking from super far away. I think they did a super job keeping it under control and that’s all I asked for today because I knew at a certain point the strongest would have to battle it out.”

Despite his calm confidence, Van der Poel showed glints of his humanity after the race, visibly exhausted and suffering from his efforts. He won the race in dominant fashion, but his rivals can at least take some solace that he still had to try quite hard to do so.

“I’m really f****d right now so it will take time to realise what I’ve done,” he laughed. “It’s something I could never have dreamed of, to win De Ronde as world champion, that’s something special. It’s my favourite race of the year, I fell in love with it the first time I did it and it’s maybe the race that suits me the most, with all the cobbled climbs following each other quite quickly. I like it.”

The lesson that Van der Poel hammered home with his emphatic display of strength today was that if he “likes” a race, it means he’s probably going to win it. While his long-range solo move might not have made for the most exciting spectacle from a fan perspective, it’s hard not to marvel at the style and skill of the world champion as he finessed the narrow, slippery roads in Belgium. 

Tactics can be analysed as much as possible, the race can be watched back over and over again, but, as his rivals openly admit, Mathieu van der Poel is a cut above the rest when he races in Flanders. He’s now won De Ronde three times, and few would bet against there still being more to come in the Dutch rider’s career.

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