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Mathieu van der Poel just can’t help himself at the UAE Tour

A new sense of urgency underscores the opening races of 2021.

Mathieu van der Poel just can’t help himself. Racing bikes is in his DNA.

When there’s a finish line, his instincts kick in, and his brain is hard-wired for speed. And cycling fans are happier for it.

In his first road race since last fall’s “spring” classics, cycling’s jack-of-all-trades reminded everyone why he’s one of the most exciting racers to hit the peloton in years. With the bunch ripped to shreds by crosswinds, he kicked to victory out of a reduced bunch in the WorldTour season opener in stage 1 at the UAE Tour.

Just in case anyone had forgotten how versatile he is.

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Van der Poel seems so supernaturally talented at racing bikes he can squeeze out victories even when he doesn’t expect to. Just hours before the start of the race, he was saying he was going to use the UAE Tour to blow out the cobwebs and help teammate Jasper Philipsen in the bunch sprints.

“I said I was coming here as a lead-out man, but today I had good legs from the beginning,” van der Poel said. “It means a lot to me to start my road season the same way I finished my cyclocross season.”

Of course, things rarely go to plan in cycling, and as soon as the desert winds kicked up, the early season peloton was tattered like a lone banner on a flagpole. Marquee names such as Chris Froome (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) were scarecrows in the wind. Ever the deft racer, van der Poel kept position, and found himself at the front group. With Alpecin-Fenix’s designated sprinter Philipsen caught out, van der Poel could play his card.

So what else was he going to do as the reduced bunch came toward the finish? Win, of course.

“The hard race was good for me in the sprint,” said van der Poel, who made easy work of other sprinters such as Elia Viviani and Fernando Gaviria. “That gave me confidence that I could go for the sprint, which wasn’t the plan before. I didn’t expect such a stage or such a result at all.”

Racers take chances where they can in environment of uncertainty

Van der Poel’s emphatic opening-day stage victory underscores what’s already been a thrilling debut to the men’s calendar in 2021.

Though the ongoing pandemic forced dozens of early season races to cancel — the UCI confirmed last week that 38 events have been canceled or postponed so far in 2021 — a slew of races have been able to be contested on their scheduled dates.

And the racing has been scintillating by every measure.

Not only is that encouraging for the upcoming classics and stage races in Europe, with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad set for Saturday to also open the women’s calendar, it also reveals how cycling has been able to manage the challenges of coronavirus. Officials tell VeloNews that such races as Paris-Nice, Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milano-Sanremo and the the northern classics are expected to be held unless there is a major turn for the worse.

Against this backdrop of uncertainty, teams and riders are taking full advantage of every opportunity to compete. If anyone learned anything from 2020, it’s to race to win every day you line up because it might be the last chance.

Alaphilippe was on the move through the Tour de la Provence earlier this month. Photo: James Startt

So far, big names across several early season races are hitting out hard.

Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) lit up the Tour de Provence, and Ineos Grenadiers came out swinging as well, with Iván Sosa taking the flowers in France. Giacomo Nizzolo delivered a searing, opening-day win for new-look Qhubeka-Assos at the Clásica de Almería, while heavyweights like Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) and Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) wasted no time at their respective debuts at Étoile de Bességes.

This kind of aggressive racing is just what the sport needs, said Thomas Van Den Spiegel, CEO at Flanders Classics.

Last fall, the rescheduled Tour of Flanders was held under extreme conditions, and no fans were allowed to watch the race. But for those who tuned in on TV saw an amazing battle between van der Poel and arch-rival Wout van Aert.

“People were asking me last year what would be the dream scenario, and of course it would be Wout van Aert and van der Poel squaring off,” Van Den Spiegel said. “The sport needs these new stars. It’s going to be very good for cycling to have these big riders like Wout and Mathieu and Alaphilippe, who attack in every race. They are not afraid to lose.”

It was van der Poel who came up aces in a photo-finish at Flanders last October. After a busy cyclocross season, capped by another world title, van der Poel didn’t miss a beat in his road debut Sunday. With the Olympics in mountain biking still at the center of his calendar, this hobby road racer notched his 28th career win on the pavement.

One wonders how well he’ll go once he’s fully committed to road racing. Perhaps this mixed-bag approach keeps it more fun for van der Poel. And it’s obvious what’s fun for van der Poel is fun for everyone else, except for anyone racing against him.