Mathieu van der Poel held off two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar and the surging pair of Dylan van Baarle and Valentin Madouas on Sunday 3 April to win the Tour of Flanders, one of the ‘big five’ monument races of the season. The win marked van der Poel’s second victory in a race where he has never finished below fourth. Pogačar hastily left the finish after a tactical error cost him a near-certain podium in a race he’d dominated from 55km out.
The Tour of Flanders is Belgium’s Tour de France. Held on a single day, the race is a national event, with one million spectators lining the route to catch a glimpse of some of the biggest names in pro cycling – including, unusually, the most recent Tour de France winner, Tadej Pogačar.
Unlike The Tour de France, with its long, twisting alpine passes, Flanders is characterised by a series of short, sharp ascents over rough cobblestones, with larger riders who have the raw power to sprint up these ‘bergs’ as fast as possible dominating the top results. Tour de France contenders rarely enter, let alone compete for a top result.
But Tadej Pogačar tends not to conform to the conventional expectations of a Tour de France winner, and with 55km he was once again ripping up the rulebook. A fierce surge up the long, sinuous, Oude Kwaremont was so devastating it could initially only be followed by last year’s winner, Kasper Asgreen. A gap of 20 seconds to a dangerous group who had escaped some 40km earlier was evaporated within a minute, and by the top, just three riders from the move had managed to hang on to Pogačar’s coattails.
Over the top of the climb and Pogačar sat up. His companions in the move were understandably reluctant to help, and many of the big favourites were assembling to chase him down. But any questions over the wisdom of his decision to race this event were already answered; Tadej was here to win.
The Paterberg followed and a select group of 12 – including Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogačar – had a small gap at the top, but with the infamous Koppenberg, a climb once banned from the route for being ‘too hard’ rapidly approaching, the move lacked impetus. Ineos’ van Baarle and Brit Fred Wright clipped off the front of the group, and had 30 seconds going into the foot of the climb.
Pogačar immediately surged on, reaching the incline, powering along the crown of the cobbles and making a mockery of those who took the ‘easier’ line in the gulley. He immediately had a gap and only van der Poel and Madouas looked anywhere close to the 23-year-old Slovenian.
On the descent, the Pogačar-led group caught the duo of van Baarle and Wright and a relative calm ensued. The decimated remains of the peloton were slipping further back as the leading five worked together well. Further ‘bergs’ came and went, but with one more lap of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg to go, the leading group was content to rest and refuel.
18km to go. The penultimate climb. Pogačar lifts the pace once more. Van Baarle and Wright immediately drop off the back, with Madouas soon following them.
He was on fire today. He was really good… I tried to beat him in the sprint, but it was not my day
– Tadej Pogacar
Mathieu van der Poel was the only person who could live with Pogačar, and he knew that should they crest the final climb together, he was the likely victor in a sprint finish. He just needed to hang on.
13km to go: The Paterberg: 400 meters of the steepest cobbles that Belgium has to offer, and Pogačar had one more opportunity.
He led from the very bottom, an 80-second, all out effort awaited. Nothing at first. And then, a gap, van der Poel lurched for the relative respite of the grass, losing ground as he did so. Pedal-stroke by pedal-stroke Pogačar was gaining ground, but Mathieu van der Poel found an extra gear, and latched back onto the back wheel of the UAE-Team Emirates rider.
The following 12km gave both the duo out front, and the viewers, a chance to catch their breath. They held a 30-second gap over van Baarle and Madouas going into the final kilometre. It seemed that the only thing left to decide was which way round the pair would finish on the top steps of the podium.
Although van der Poel was favourite for the sprint, he’d been in almost this exact position last year and come off second best. Pogačar, meanwhile, had been the strongest rider all day and had always been more than capable of producing a burst of speed when needed.
800 meters to go and van der Poel signalled for Pogačar to do one more turn on the front, but Pogačar refused. Van der Poel stopped pedalling. The camera opened up to show the pursuers still 20 seconds further down the arrow-straight finish. The lead duo were inching forward.
At 400 meters to go they had 10 seconds on the chasers. Pogačar still refused to up the pace.
250 meters to go, and the chasing duo surged onto the back wheels of van der Poel and Pogačar, the speed differential massive.
Van der Poel launched his sprint. The acceleration was instant. Pogačar wound up his own kick, but did not have the torque of the cyclocross star.
Madouas and van Baarle swamped either side of Tadej Pogačar, boxing him in between their back wheels. Mathieu van der Poel was a bike length ahead, and only accelerating. Pogačar had nowhere to go.
Tadej Pogačar could only show his anger, sitting up and gesticulating as van der Poel held on for the win, with van Baarle holding off Madouas for second and third respectively.
Across the finish line and the contrasting emotions could not be more apparent. Van der Poel coolly slid his bike to a halt, and embraced his partner in a massive rush of media, photographers, and spectators. Pogačar rode straight to the team bus, his soigneur hastily chasing after him. He’d lost (his chance at?) this race, and he knew it.
Mathieu van der Poel, who had only recently returned from a back injury, knew how impressive Tadej Pogačar had been: “The Kwaremont and Paterberg I was just trying to hold the wheel of Tadej. He was really strong up there especially the Paterberg was really on the limit for me.”
“He was really impressive today,” van der Poel said. “It was a bit of shame he was not on the podium today because he would have deserved it.”
“[It] is a race that suits me pretty well,” van der Poel continued. “Winning is always nice… The level is really high at the moment, and I’m really happy to win again today.”
Tadej Pogačar was equally graceful in defeat: “He was on fire today. He was really good… I tried to beat him in the sprint, but it was not my day.”