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Van der Poel gains confidence in WorldTour debut

World cyclocross champion Mathieu van der Poel impresses with a fourth-place result at Gent-Wevelgem after a day of aggressive racing.

WEVELGEM, Belgium (VN) — Cyclocross star Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) received a massive boost for his road career by finishing fourth in Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem, his first WorldTour race.

The two-time world cyclocross champion completed his longest race in style, attacking on the climb and sprinting with the stars in Wevelgem after 251.5 kilometers.

“I think I can be confident for the next races,” van der Poel said after a shower and a team debriefing back at the red team Corendon-Circus bus.

His team was one of a few second division, Professional Continental teams starting in the WorldTour race. The race marks his big spring debut on the road in the classics. Previously he has raced smaller one-day races and tours, winning the Dwars door het Hageland and the Boucles de la Mayenne already in 2019.

“It was a very tough race with the wind. We raced from the first until the last kilometers,” he added. “It was a very hard race. I think I can be happy with how the race went.”

The race went quickly from the gun from Deinze, just west of Gent. The Dutchman, 24, made the elite group of 18 men when the race broke into echelons under the power of Wout van Aert’s Jumbo-Visma team. In the move were also star names, including three-time Gent-Wevelgem winner Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates).

When that breakaway started to come back together on the climbs, van der Poel attacked on the Baneberg climb. It briefly stuck, with van Aert and later Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-Quick Step) coming over. Then he tucked back in, protecting himself for the eventual sprint. He showed keen race smarts at such a young age.

“No [the attack] was improvised, but I hoped to get some guys with me,” he said. “But unfortunately it was just one guy and it was pretty clear it would be a sprint with a large group because it was a headwind from the last time [up the] Kemmel to the finish line.”

Already, insiders are naming van der Poel as a possible winner in the shorter Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday or even the long cobbled monument, the Tour of Flanders, on Sunday.

He will not race the cobbled French monument Paris-Roubaix in two weeks, but will return to the Amstel Gold Race before taking a break and focusing on mountain biking. His goal is to keep racing that discipline until the Tokyo Olympics while working to improve on the road in the meantime.

“I think the only thing I need to improve is my legs,” he continued. “For the rest, like I said, I think it’s very important to be in the front the whole race, and it can happen everywhere.”

Van der Poel noted the number of former cyclocross world champions in Gent-Wevelgem — himself, Stybar, and van Aert. But he said, “I’ve seen the previous races, so I knew their shape is very good.”

The red bus began its engine. After the other riders already left for the team hotel, van der Poel thought about the improvements and the lessons learned but did not forget the result — fourth — in his WorldTour debut and its significance with the UCI points it gives his team.

Asked if he was leaving Wevelgem happy with fourth, he said, “I am, yeah.”