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Mathieu van der Poel delivers tactical masterpiece ahead of Tour of Flanders: ‘I’m happy to be at the highest level again’

Alpecin-Fenix star wins mid-week classic in bold confirmation that he will be a favorite for victory Sunday at Tour of Flanders.

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WAREGEM, Belgium (VN) — Mathieu van der Poel didn’t ride everyone off his wheel Wednesday to win Dwars door Vlaanderen because he didn’t need to.

Van der Poel astutely read a wild, attack-ridden race at the mid-week Belgian classic, countering moves when he needed to, and then following the attacking Tiesj Benoot from rival Jumbo-Visma to glide to his second win in 2022.

With the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, van der Poel knows he delivered a tactical masterpiece Wednesday ahead of what he believes is going to be a much different story with a race that will be nearly two hours and 100km longer.

“I think that’s the main issue,” van der Poel said of Flanders. “I did [that distance] at Milan-San Remo, but that’s a different race. It all depends. I did all I could to be in my best possible shape for Sunday and I am feeling even better than expected and I will try to do battle on Sunday for the victory.”

The Alpecin-Fenix star’s Flanders stock rose dramatically Wednesday after finessing victory out of an eight-rider breakaway that fended off the likes of Tadej Pogačar and the entire Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl team on the hilly, berg-laden route.

“I am just happy to win today,” he said. “Last year, I was dropped here and I was riding pretty bad and I was second at the Ronde. It’s 100km more. It’s completely different race than this one.”

Mathieu van der Poel: ‘Happy to be at the highest level again’

Mathieu van der Poel is back in the winner’s circle just in time. (Photo: DIRK WAEM/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

The Hollywood scriptwriters were hoping for a van der Poel-Pogačar duel on Wednesday, and the Dutchman at least delivered his part of the bargain. Pogačar missed the winning accelerations and tried twice in vain to bridge across.

Van der Poel wasn’t fooled and said the two-time Tour de France champion will be a favorite Sunday for de Ronde.

“For sure he had the legs to follow, maybe he was a bit too far behind,” van der Poel said. “It was impossible to come back because we were all pacing fast in the group and everyone took their role. It was impossible to catch us. I don’t know what went wrong, if it was placing or what happened, but for sure, if he is in the front, he is on our group.”

While Pogačar wasn’t there, Pidcock and Ineos Grenadiers teammate Ben Turner was.

The UK outfit revved up the speed to split the lead GC group, and van der Poel knew it was the time to move. Van der Poel marked the Ineos acceleration and then immediately piled on in a group that formed at the front.

Some wondered if van der Poel wasn’t his swashbuckling self in his first major classic since his comeback from a back injury over the winter, but he said he simply was racing off what was happening on the road.

“I don’t know if it’s possible to be more economical. It was dangerous with a lot of crashes and I didn’t want to be in one of those, and we decided to start racing sooner than we had planned yesterday,” he said.

“I didn’t know what was happening with Pogačar, but it was impossible to come back to our group. We were seven or eight really strong riders. I immediately knew the race was done there,” he said. “I reacted because the other guys were attacking. I also knew in the final there were no hard parts or more cobbles, and I knew if I went everyone would just react. That was the right tactic today and I waited.”

Mathieu van der Poel: Elated with his second victory in 2022

Mathieu van der Poel used his legs and his head to win Wednesday. (Photo: ERIC LALMAND/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

Van der Poel relished a return to the winner’s podium at such a prestigious race.

He hit the podium in a return at Milan-San Remo with third. He won an emphatic stage win at Coppi e Bartali last week, in Italy, and then delivered a sublime victory Wednesday at his first northern classic since finishing third at Paris-Roubaix.

“I am just happy to be at the highest level again. I worked really hard on it and the people around me know that. It gives me a lot of confidence to be back,” he said.

When asked if his active recovery from December is making him feel fresher deep in the race, he wasn’t convinced.

“I didn’t feel [fresh] the whole race. When I was in the lead group I didn’t feel like I was strongest in the group, but in the final, it was difficult to control everyone because they were also looking at me,” he said. “In the final kilometers, I decided I was going to react to everything. Benoot went and I immediately followed, and we had a nice gap. I knew I had to go all out to the finish line.”