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For a rider as prolific as the Dutch superstar, anything less than victory might be viewed as a disappointment.
Yet van der Poel seemed content to go down swinging in an epic battle across the muddied pavé of northern France.
“I am proud to be on the podium at my first participation,” he told Dutch broadcaster NOS. “My legs were gone in the end.”
After a niggling back injury, van der Poel was unsure if he would even start the late-season races at the world championships and Paris-Roubaix a week later.
There was no way he was going to miss the dates with destiny.
Mathieu van der Poel: ‘On the limit for the last 30-40km’
On Sunday, van der Poel showed glimpses of brilliance when he jumped out of a chase group with about 70km to go to bridge across to eventual winner Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious) and others.
Later, van der Poel also revealed hints that he was on the limit when late-race surges were quickly marked by Colbrelli and Florian Vermeersch (Lotto-Soudal).
“I was pretty much on the limit continuously for the last 30-40 kilometers,” van der Poel told the Dutch broadcaster. “You hope the others are broken, too. But it was really over for me.”
After leading rider Gianni Moscon (Ineos Grenadiers) punctured and then crashed, the leading three came into the velodrome set up for a dramatic sprint finish.
Van der Poel usually packs an explosive punch, but he ran flat against his rivals, and had to settle for third in a three-up sprint won by Colbrelli.
“It was difficult today. I’m happy with the race I ran,” he said, searching for consolation. “I was able to race the way I like to do it, in the attack. It was a nice race anyway.”
Vacation, recovery and cyclocross worlds in USA
With an exclamation point, van der Poel puts an end to a 2021 racing season filled with highs and lows.
The Alpecin-Fenix multi-discipline star won another cyclocross world title and won a stage and wore the yellow jersey for a week in his Tour de France debut, only to crash out in Olympic Games in an odd miscue in the mountain bike race when he wrongly believed a ramp would be utilized in a key jump.
Also read: Van der Poel crashes in mountain bike race
Back pain put his autumn into doubt, but van der Poel showed stiff resolve to race both the worlds and Roubaix.
Though he didn’t come away with more, he went down swinging with trademark panache.
“If I have to lose, I prefer to go down fighting. I am happy with it,” he continued. “Apparently, I was the most devastated of all [in the final sprint]. I think everyone’s back hurts now, but it hasn’t bothered me. It was very tough, but this Paris-Roubaix is one to be framed and never to be forgotten.”
A well-deserved vacation, and a return to cyclocross, most likely in December, before prepping for another world title, this time to be contested on U.S. soil on January 30 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.