From mud to single-track, to pavé and gravel, it doesn’t matter for Mathieu van der Poel.
What does matter is the quality of the field. On Saturday, Tour de France winners, world champions and longtime rivals couldn’t answer the Dutch superstar when he dropped the hammer in the decisive moments en route to victory at Strade Bianche.
“In this race, all the top racers are racing against each other, including Tour de France winners like Bernal and Pogačar,” van der Poel said. “The fact that I can beat them in a direct fight gives this victory extra value.”
Little more than a month after winning the world cyclocross championships, the Alpecin-Fenix rider powered away from a who’s who of the elite men’s peloton to add Strade Bianche to his growing trophy case.
If there was any doubt of van der Poel’s condition, he erased it in a string of searing accelerations that split an elite front group that included Tour winners Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) and Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Emirates). Arch-rival Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), who’d never finished worse than third before ceding under van der Poel’s pressure, fought to fourth to salvage his first day of road racing in 2021.
Only Bernal and world champion Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) could hold his wheel on his final selective attack. The pair was on vapors when van der Poel surged clear on the final ramps into Siena’s historic piazza devoid of public due to health restrictions.
“I felt really good all day,” van der Poel said. “This race is so difficult you have to be careful with your strength. When the finale started, I was ready to go, but I remembered that there were some tricky sections to follow, so I decided to save some energy [until the final wall].”
It appears there’s no putting the brakes on the ever-growing van der Poel legend. Not even a final-hour bike change following a mechanical mishap when his handlebars snapped near the finale of the GP Le Samyn last week could slow him down.
Van der Poel makes up for his 15th place in his Strade Bianche debut last year, when the race was rescheduled to reopen the WorldTour in August. Van der Poel admitted he was slow coming out of the gates last summer following a months-long lockdown, but he appears to be firing at all cylinders so far in 2021.
His road season debut was derailed soon after he won the opening stage at the UAE Tour following a COVID-19 case within his Alpecin-Fenix team. Following a hasty return to Europe, he raced Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and Le Samyn to put him on top form Saturday.
“After what happened at the UAE Tour, I’m really happy I could race at Kuurne and Le Samyn because I needed that, and now here we are,” he said. “I find it difficult to say [importance of victory]. Amstel Gold Race also means a lot to me, but that’s not a monument, either. But you can say that this race is one of the most difficult to win, with all the top riders at the start.”
Van der Poel stays in Italy where he will race Tirreno-Adriatico — he quickly downplayed his GC ambitions — and next Milano-Sanremo. After that, it’s back to Belgium for all the major northern classics. How many more wins will he have before the spring turns to summer?