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Marked men: Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, and ‘Peter Sagan syndrome’

Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel may find themselves with targets on their backs this spring, just as Peter Sagan was during his prime.

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Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel are in many ways rebooted, modern versions of Peter Sagan. Multi-terrain skills. Attacking panache. Daredevil racecraft. Near-celebrity status.

Life couldn’t be better for the peloton’s two top dogs, right?

Not necessarily.

Van Aert and van der Poel may also share the curse that stalked the Slovak after he rose to prominence in the middle of the last decade – the curse of the marked man.

“You cannot look past the two phenomenons that we have in van der Poel and van Aert,” Deceuninck-Quick-Step director Tom Steels told VeloNews before Milano-Sanremo last week. “They are really strong, can climb and are fast, and can finish alone or in a sprint. The only weapon you have against them is the tactics, and the strength of the team.”

Van der Poel and van Aert have blazed a trail through the early season. “MvdP” has launched audacious attacks and crushing accelerations as if for fun. Van Aert has beaten grand tour stars in the high mountains and bettered sprinters in bunch kicks. But the more they win, the harder it will become to add to the tally.

All the talk was about “how to stop the Wout and Mathieu show” ahead of Sanremo last week as rivals wailed, and teams scratched heads about how to unlock the duo’s dominance. However, the surging hype behind the two stars shut down their chances on the Italian Riviera this weekend, and there’s a real chance of a repeat all the way through the cobbles of northern Europe in the coming weeks.

When the race shook out at the bottom of the Poggio at the denouement of Milano-Sanremo, the hulking presence of van der Poel and the No. 1 on van Aert’s will have been front-and-center of the minds of the 17-strong front group.

What are they going to do? How do we counter?

While Jasper Stuyven didn’t wait for the pair to move, the rest of the bunch hesitated, braced for van Aert or van der Poel to launch a haymaker. Having been shadowed by half the peloton over the Poggio, defending champ van Aert didn’t want to burn his matches pulling the field in pursuit. As Stuyven vanished up the road, van Aert begrudgingly countered a flurry of moves in the panicking pack and dragged the field back toward the race leader, snuffing the spark in his legs that could have launched a sprint victory.

The Jumbo-Visma ace finished third, a disappointing end to his title defense. Who finished on his shoulder? An unmarked and under-the-radar Peter Sagan, taking the fifth Sanremo fourth-place of his career.

Rewind four years, and Sagan had suffered similar treatment to van Aert.

After adding a second rainbow jersey, a Tour de France green jacket, and a European champion’s jersey to his brimming wardrobe the season prior, Sagan was red-hot favorite for the 2017 Sanremo. As a result, he was marked through each of the race’s 291km, stalked up and over the Poggio, and followed down the Via Roma by Julian Alaphilippe and Michał Kwiatkowski, with the latter taking the win.

“Kwiatkowski owes me a few beers,” Sagan uttered after his elbow-wagging end to the race.

Eight days later, Sagan was again leaned on, this time by Niki Terpstra at Gent-Wevelgem. Rather than co-operating in a joint chase of Greg van Avermaet and Jens Keukeleire, the Dutchman sat on the world champ’s wheel rather than risking towing him to the line before being out-sprinted to the podium.

The story repeated itself throughout much of the season as Sagan’s dominance over the classics backfired on him, leaving him suffocated out of races throughout the year.

Maybe offense is the best defense after all?

Wout van Aert was marked through the final of Sanremo.

Saturday’s Sanremo was the second time Trek-Segafredo has taken the race to van Aert and van der Poel rather than waiting in their shadow.

Also read: Pedersen capitalizes on van Aert and van der Poel’s rivalry at Gent-Wevelgem

Little over five months ago, Mads Pedersen rolled the dice as van Aert, van der Poel and a half-dozen hitters rolled toward the finish line at the close of Gent-Wevelgem. Van Aert and van der Poel traded surges and stare-downs. Pedersen didn’t hang around as the rest of the pack watched the “VanderWout” show unfold ahead of them. The Dane went, and he won.

With the cobbles season set to fire into action this week, van Aert and van der Poel will have to get used to being marked, and marking each other. At the same time, they’ve got to figure out how to keep the wins rolling as the rest of the peloton looks to spoil their party.

The heavy-hitters of the classics scene such as Deceuninck-Quick-Step, Ag2r-Citroën, and UAE-Emirates will have taken note of Stuyven’s willingness to gamble with his “all-or-nothing” attack. Rather than waiting in the wheels, the Belgian grabbed the race by the neck, and it worked.

“Those three [Alaphilippe, van Aert, van der Poel] are the strongest riders in the world in virtually every kind of race, but I showed today that if you believe in it, you can achieve great things. And that they’re beatable,” Stuyven said Saturday. “Nobody is unbeatable. I think that’s the right mentality.”

The same story went for Sagan. After years of being followed and countered at his every pedal stroke, riders realized the Slovak wasn’t invincible and went on the attack. Vincenzo Nibali upset Sagan and the sprinters with a Poggio raid at the 2018 Milano-Sanremo, and a few weeks later, Terpstra this time went on the offense to win Tour of Flanders.

Just as team directors were at their drawing boards figuring about how to “not lose” to van Aert and van der Poel ahead of Sanremo, the two aces may now be left with the thinking to do; how to win when being marked, and how to win when the peloton realizes that offense is perhaps the best defense.