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Mathieu van der Poel lit up Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne in trademark fashion. Ever the disruptor, he attacked from 80km out, which, for any other rider, would mean little more than some TV time. With van der Poel, it almost ended in victory.
Only a frenetic chase in the closing kilometers from the top favorites was able to shut down van der Poel and the remnants of the day’s wild breakaway, and opened the door for Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) to add another trophy to his ever-burgeoning case.
For van der Poel? Just another day at the office.
“It wasn’t a bad try,” he told Sporza. “I had a good time.”
Van der Poel wasn’t even supposed to race Sunday. A flare up of COVID-19 last week among Alpecin-Fenix staffers sent the team out of the UAE Tour, where van der Poel opened his road season with panache to win the opening stage ravaged by crosswind. Van der Poel returned to Europe, and after clearing a series of health checks, lined up Sunday with exactly one race day in his legs on the road.
A group of six were already up the road when suddenly van der Poel jumped out of the main bunch with just over 80km to go. With about two hours left to race, it seemed like a crazy move. Jhonatan Narváez (Ineos Grenadiers) hitched a ride, and the pair bridged across coming onto the Oude Kwaremont.
Van der Poel’s long bet didn’t quite turn out as he had hoped. There was a split behind him on the Kwaremont, but a few riders missed the move, which prompted a chase to bring the favorites back together. That left van der Poel and the break dangling off the front coming into the final circuit with a razor-thin lead.
“The attack came just in the spur of the moment. Narváez rode very strong, and that helped a lot,” van der Poel said. “I hoped that some of the favorites would come across after the Kwaremont, but that didn’t happen. It was a hard decision to keep pushing or not.”
That left van der Poel in a quandary; does he keep driving in the break, or does he attack the group? He stayed tucked into the breakaway group, and it was taking the main pack longer and longer to bring them back. There were a flurry of moves on the final circuit, followed by a desperate chase, and van der Poel and Co. were only checked with less than 2km to go.
“The group was working well, so I opted not to attack,” he said. “I don’t think I could have gone any faster on my own. In the end, it just didn’t work out. I kept believing because the gap was stuck at 20 seconds.”
‘I have the flow again’
Once his group was neutralized, van der Poel jumped on the wheel, but couldn’t make a clean sprint to the line. He finished 12th, a number that does not fully represent what he brought to the race.
Van der Poel walked away satisfied on the day’s effort. With his second try at Strade Bianche looming on Saturday, he will race the mid-week semi-classic Le Samyn to hone his form. Instead of having a full week of racing at the UAE Tour in his legs, van der Poel will square off against Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and the other top favorites at Strade Bianche with just three race days on the road.
“Three days of racing is enough for me,” van der Poel said. “I’m feeling pretty good. I really didn’t perform that well in the first month of last season, but after coming off the cyclocross season this year, I have the flow again.”