Mathieu van der Poel doesn’t like losing. And he likes it even less when it’s his own fault.
Having found himself bettered by Julian Alaphilippe in a reduced bunch kick at Tirreno-Adriatico on Thursday, the Dutchman was left gnashing his teeth and rueing his poor positioning. Van der Poel didn’t make the same mistake again Friday, blasting off of Wout van Aert‘s wheel to take the win, arms crossed in defiance.
“I was really happy when I crossed the line,” said van der Poel after his victory. “After my mistake yesterday, I was a bit frustrated. Today I wanted to rectify that.”
Cool as you like 😎
— Eurosport UK (@Eurosport_UK) March 12, 2021
With the classics on the horizon, Tirreno-Adriatico has taken on an added dimension as van der Poel, van Aert and Alaphilippe elbow for every inch of room and every flash of psychological advantage.
Van der Poel’s win on the grinding kick to the line in Gualdo Tadino on Friday is his third in seven races, and places him on par with van Aert and Alaphilippe at Tirreno-Adriatico at one victory apiece.
Although all of cycling’s new “big three” have hit the ground running this season, van der Poel has emerged as king of the court. With Milano-Sanremo arriving next weekend and the cobblestone classics soon afterward, the Dutchman’s jaw-dropping power and ruthless pursuit of success marks him as the man to beat.
Tirreno-Adriatico is more a form-finder than a big target for van der Poel as he looks to make up for lost miles having missed out on his scheduled seven days at the UAE Tour due to a COVID case in his team. Nonetheless, every win counts, and every loss stings – particularly if pre-classics bragging rights are at stake.
“I really wanted to win a stage, and that’s why I was so frustrated yesterday after making a mistake,” van der Poel said Friday. “So I am extra happy that I took the victory today. I hope that I can now maintain this form until the Belgian classics.”
The 'Big Three' are 1-2-3 in 🇮🇹 Tirreno-Adriatico. Mathieu van der Poel (2nd) the fastest, but Julian Alaphilippe (1st) the smartest.pic.twitter.com/eR5DZEacPU
— Cyclocross24.com (@cyclocross24) March 11, 2021
Van der Poel had sprinted from far back in the bunch on Thursday’s second stage to claim second-place. The Dutch ace’s late surge of power to hit the podium proved his otherworldly Strade Bianche wattbombs were no fluke and that van der Poel can never be counted out. However, not winning was simply not good enough.
“I was really displeased with myself,” van der Poel told Het Nieuwsblad of his stage 2 performance. “My positioning really didn’t look like anything. I rode the fastest sprint, but that is nothing to you if you start in a bad position. It was just stupid of myself.”
Van Aert outfoxed and unhappy with second place
Van der Poel’s victory on Friday’s stage 3 made for a combination of poise and power.
When van Aert reacted first after Alaphilippe left a gap in the bunch to allow leadout man Zdenek Štybar to motor clear, van der Poel latched on to his archrival’s wheel. Once van Aert had dragged them across to the charging Czech, van der Poel turned on the afterburners to level the score with Alaphilippe and van Aert to one apiece.
“I am disappointed,” van Aert said. “I lost the sprint because I close that gap on Štybar. It was an unexpected move by Deceuninck-Quick-Step, which made me fire my bullet too soon. If you do that with Mathieu van der Poel in the wheel, you don’t stand a chance in the actual sprint. ”
Van Aert grabbed a vital six bonus seconds with his second-place finish, enough to keep him at the top of the GC heading into a decisive summit finish Saturday. However, being outfoxed by van der Poel stung.
“Taking extra seconds is good, but I’d rather have won myself,” van Aert said.
Consider these the early skirmishes. Milano-Sanremo and the cobblestones will mark the true battleground.