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Tour de France

Mathieu van der Poel, Alpecin-Fenix: From the fringe of the WorldTour to the top of the Tour de France

Alpecin-Fenix treads a tricky line between being defined by Mathieu van der Poel while wanting to be independent of his success.

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Just don’t call it the “the team of Mathieu van der Poel.”

Alpecin-Fenix emerged from the first phase of the Tour de France with two stage wins from two different riders, six days in yellow with Mathieu van der Poel, and the plunder of the race’s prize-pot.

Not bad for one of the minnows of the Tour de France peloton.

“It’s been a fantastic tour – from the second day on it, it has all been amazing,” team manager Christoph Roodhooft told VeloNews.

“And it’s not just with Mathieu. With Jasper Philipsen, with Tim Merlier, the whole guys,” he underlined immediately afterward.

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Roodhooft’s ProTeam crew took to the Grand Départ last weekend amid a frenzy of MvdP-hype and equally PR-friendly retro jerseys.

Van der Poel lived up to the massive expectation on just the second day of trying with a rocketship victory on the Mûr de Bretagne. Jasper Philipsen and Merlier followed hot in his wheel tracks with a stage win and string of podium placings. It was a haul that earned Alpecin-Fenix a cool €51,660 – the top earnings of any of the Tour’s 23 teams.

With van der Poel in yellow, the squad took on the mantle of controlling the race with the confidence of a team with far bigger coffers and a much bigger bench. When not clustered around a yellow-jersey wearing van der Poel, the team was pulling hard to set up the sprints.

Roodhooft saw the opening week as an important statement of intent: Alpecin-Fenix is not just a mercenary bunch of chancers built around one flying Dutchman.

“That first week doesn’t change anything for us and how we see ourselves, but the way other teams or other people look at us might change a bit,” Roodhooft said in a call on the Tour’s rest day Monday.

“We can see already with how other teams ride around us and are with us in the peloton. You can feel appreciation from almost everybody about what we did, because they all know how difficult what we did is.”

The WorldTour can wait

As the leading team of the UCI’s second division in 2020, Alpecin-Fenix has the luxury of being automatically invited to all WorldTour events with the flexibility of sitting out those unsuitable. And with van der Poel on board, the team is assured return invites in future years, no matter where it finishes in the 2021 rankings.

It’s a win-win situation for Alpecin-Fenix, but one that Roodhooft believes lends them a problematic position in the peloton.

“Of course, we only take the good thing from the WorldTour, not going to the races where we have no interest or those that are really difficult logistic-wise we skip from time to time,” he said.

“We are able to make our own program. We have permission to start everywhere and to not go where we don’t want to. And I can imagine that other teams do not always like that.”

Already this season, the Belgian team has been at all the major classics, Tirreno-Adriatico, Tour de Suisse, and the Giro d’Italia. Vuelta a España is the next on the list. With van der Poel on the books through 2023, Roodhooft acknowledges there’s no rush to step up to the WorldTour other than for the bragging rights.

“There won’t really be a benefit being in the WorldTour. But to grow as a team from continental to WorldTour is also something special. Now they always say ‘yes, but they are only a Pro Team’ and so taking the next step would finish it,” Roodhooft said.

“We might look at stepping up at a good moment but only when a good moment is there, not soon, and definitely not next year.”

The sticky symbiosis between van der Poel and Alpecin-Fenix

Van der Poel abandoned the Tour on Sunday morning as he looked to rest up and recover for the Olympics. Just a few hours later, top sprinter Merlier failed to finish the multi-mountain ninth stage.

With van der Poel out of the picture, Roodhooft acknowledged the team’s time in the Tour’s spotlight would dwindle.

It points toward the sticky symbiosis between van der Poel and his squad. Roodhooft’s multi-discipline outfit affords its star rider the freedom to race across three disciplines and in turn benefits from the sponsorship and PR wagon that follows wherever the 26-year-old pedals.

Roodhooft and his brother, and co-manager, Philip have been building out the team’s roster with the likes of Philipsen, Silvan Dillier, and Petr Vakoč to restore some balance, both for their security and van der Poel’s headspace.

“We want to be more independent from him and of course also to take away some pressure from him – being the only one who needs to win always is not that easy,” Roodhooft said.

“It was our goal to be more than Mathieu van der Poel, not only for ourselves but also for him – we’ve done that before, and now again at this Tour.”

Alpecin-Fenix has van der Poel’s signature for some time yet, meaning the squad won’t throw off the aggravating Catch-22 of being a small team with a huge rider for many more seasons. But any squad harboring such a “bigger than the sport” megastar would be in a similar situation.

“It’s not just us. Mathieu would bring so much to every team on earth. That’s something people do not realize – there are only two, three guys maybe four or five in cycling, who have the same power as Mathieu van der Poel, on all levels. So he would bring a big difference in any team,” Roodhooft said.

“You cannot replace him because he’s special. You cannot compare him to anybody else. That’s what people forget.”

Mathieu van der Poel is both a blessing and a curse for Alpecin-Fenix. It’s a contradiction they’ll happily put up with.