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Analysis: Why is Mathieu van der Poel attacking from so far out?

Writer Joe Lindsey thinks Mathieu van der Poel's long-range attacks are more deliberate than they appear.

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Ahead of Milano-San Remo, maybe no rider is more marked than Mathieu van der Poel — not even defending champ Wout van Aert or 2019 winner and current World Champion Julian Alaphilippe.

Van der Poel has been on a tear this spring, with four wins in 11 race days, which could’ve been five had his handlebar not broken in le Samyn. Van der Poel is undeniably, fearsomely strong; I nicknamed him Bamm-Bamm the other day. He can win sprints in flat or uphill finishes. He can win by following the selection and attacking on climbs, as at Strade Bianche. And he can win from long-range moves, like Tirreno-Adriatico’s stage 5.

Those audacious attacks are quickly becoming an “MvdP” trademark.

Since his first WorldTour outing at 2019’s Gent-Wevelgem, he’s shown a penchant for striking out in the break at times that don’t make much tactical sense. Van der Poel can make those moves work more than any other rider, however, because of a physical gift: he can ride faster, for up to 30 minutes, than almost anyone else in the sport, which sets the gap. And then he has the ability to recover just enough at a very high output level to hold it. But even as fans and commentators wonder if van der Poel will try such a move at Milano-Sanremo, I don’t expect him to. That’s because we may perceive those tactics incorrectly, in the conventional frame of a rider seeking victory. What if those moves represent something entirely different?

Also read: Mathieu van der Poel hints at possible Cipressa raid at Milano-Sanremo

We’ve seen phenomenally talented riders before, of course. But van der Poel races like no one I’ve seen in decades of watching races. There’s a kind of disregard for both his own body and conventional ideas about strength and tactics. The question is whether his style betrays impatience and immaturity, a tactical flaw others could exploit; or if instead signals a far more calculated and sophisticated approach to racing than anyone sees. Milano-San Remo might be a big clue as to which is the case.

You can interpret his racing either way, and two events this year provide prime examples. In February, he made a failed attack at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, and then of course there was his sortie on stage 5 of Tirreno last Sunday. Kuurne was tactically stupid, if fun: 83km from the finish with only a young Ecuadorian puncheur with scant classics history for company, in a race that almost always ends in a bunch gallop. As for Tirreno, who attacks — solo — 50km from the line on a miserably cold, wet day with winds so strong that at one point on a straight downhill van der Poel unclipped and kicked out a leg for balance like he was back on the dunes at Koksijde?

The Tirreno move worked, but only just. The long-range attack is a risky strategy because eventually, even Mathieu van der Poel runs out of power. For all his prodigious strength, van der Poel also doesn’t seem to have a clear sense of where his limits are (hence Bamm-Bamm: He doesn’t know his own strength). And when he reaches them, stuff goes pear-shaped fast. Recall the 2019 World Championships, held in similarly atrocious weather. With a lap to go, van der Poel went almost instantly from looking smoothly, powerfully in control of the winning break to pedaling squares backward.

Also read: Maybe Mathieu van der Poel is human after all

At Tirreno, he hid the collapse better, but it still happened. There, he built a lead of over three minutes with 20km to go before a counterattack by Tadej Pogačar took back all but 10 seconds of the lead. That’s the kind of gap reduction you typically only see from in two scenarios: with a sprint train rolling, or on a long summit finish in a grand your. Granted, Pogačar is another superlative talent, but even he doesn’t get back that kind of time on van der Poel in 20km unless the Dutchman’s legs are toast.

Seen in that light, van der Poel is an impetuous racer who’s writing checks even his gifted body can barely cash. There’s a playbook for how to beat that guy: use his brashness against him. (It is, granted, a playbook mostly suited for one team: Deceuninck-Quick-Step, which has many paths to victory). Mark every move, whether it’s from 50k out or 80k out, and just…don’t work with him. Either he sits up and then tries again (burning matches), or as in KBK when he was accompanied only by Jhonatan Narvaez, he’ll just keep plugging away (burning matches). Kuurne was a total fiasco, of course.

Or was it?

Remember that van der Poel wasn’t even supposed to be there; instead, he had planned on a week of racing in the desert at the UAE Tour when a COVID-19 positive on his Alpecin-Fenix team sent him into quarantine after one stage. Kuurne was “Option B.” And then a week later, he rode far more tactically at Strade Bianche (at least, outside of a mid-race positioning goof that left him to bridge to the leaders after missing a selection), shrewdly using his strength to devastating effect at two crucial moments late in the race.

The sample size is small, but this is something of a pattern in his career. In 2019, van der Poel raced aggressively at Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen, in the week prior to Flanders. Whatever he’d planned for De Ronde got screwed up by his crash at 60k to go, from which he fought back to finish fourth and which is, for my money, still the most impressive thing I’ve seen him do on a bike.

Last year, pandemic-schedule nuttiness for sure, but van der Poel raced aggressively at the BinckBank Tour and Brabantse Pijl in the lead-up to Flanders. But van der Poel let Alaphilippe be the initial primary aggressor on the cobbles, cagily matching moves and waiting for a sprint against van Aert when Alaphilippe crashed himself out of the lead trio on a stopped motorbike.

All of which gives rise to A Theory™ first proposed by my friend Whit Yost: maybe van der Poel is using races like Kuurne and Tirreno to get a particular kind of high-intensity training load he can only get with long-range attacks, and sometimes, he just happens to win (bonus!). At Kuurne, he shrugged off the catch, saying, “I had a good time.” At Tirreno, it’s notable which day he didn’t try a solo flyer: Tirreno always has one stage that’s the longest on the early spring calendar. The intent is to help riders prep for Milano-Sanremo’s extreme distance. This year, it was the 219km Stage 3, and in that mini-dress rehearsal, van der Poel raced far more conventionally, using his team to chase the early break and set up an uphill sprint (which he won).

This is silly, I know: who wins WorldTour races just for training? But the pattern is clear: in the week or so before a major objective, van der Poel races with near-abandon, without seeming to give much thought to whether his moves are smart, much less whether they’ll succeed. Sometimes he wins, sometimes not. And then he races far more tactically on the big day, using his strength in very select spots to catch his rivals out, or to cover for mishaps (his Strade brain-fart, the 2019 Flanders crash, or missing the move at Amstel the same year).

It’s not that van der Poel is the only one who uses races for training; far from it. But he’s the only one I know of who seems to in the specific way that he does (audacious attacks that give him a workout you can’t do in solo training) and then sometimes wins anyway. Whether his attacks are actually impulsive or only seem so is up for debate. But what he does Saturday might give us a pretty strong clue what exactly Mathieu van der Poel is doing out there.