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Apparently there is no stopping Mathieu van der Poel.
Barely 48 hours after finishing fourth in his impressive debut at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the 24-year-old kicked to victory in the opening stage at the Circuit de la Sarthe in France on Tuesday.
Van der Poel’s amazing spring road campaign shows no signs of stopping — except that he is voluntarily pulling the plug on it.
As much as everyone enjoyed van der Poel’s tremendous debut in the Flemish classics, however, he and his team are sticking to their off-road focus on the 2020 Olympics.
“The adventure is over at Amstel Gold,” he said. “I wanted to race [Amstel Gold] in the national jersey. It might be my only chance to do that in my career, so I do not want to miss it.”
Going into Tuesday’s four-day tour at La Sarthe, van der Poel has already won three races this spring: GP de Denain, Dwars door Vlaanderen in just his second WorldTour race, and a stage in his road season debut in February in Turkey at the Tour of Antalya.
And in even more impressive fashion, he finished fourth at both Gent-Wevelgem and Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Despite that momentum, van der Poel will compete in the final road events of his spring season with three more races: the four-day Circuit de la Sarthe starting Tuesday, Brabantse Pijl (April 17), and Amstel Gold Race (April 21). Following a short break, van der Poel will then switch to fat tires, and race the mountain bike World Cup and mountain bike world championships in September in Canada.
It’s all part of the big road map for van der Poel to dominate world cycling.
“His main goal now through next year is the Olympics, and after that, we’ll sit together and talk about the future,” said his father, Adrie van der Poel, a former Flanders winner. “What he did [Sunday] is a lot about character. He’s a rider who only rides to win races.”
Van der Poel is under contract with Corendon-Circus through 2022, a team largely built around his prodigious potential. Van der Poel will continue racing across all three disciplines, at least through the 2020 Olympic Games, after which he will put road racing at the center of his ambitions.
Van der Poel’s tremendous performance Sunday in his Tour of Flanders debut still is creating a buzz. His dramatic crash and return to the main bunch late in Sunday’s finale revealed just how much depth and quality he brings to the peloton.
There was a moment at the start line in Antwerp when world champion Alejandro Valverde, who was lined up next to van der Poel, was discretely sizing up the cycling prodigy. What was going through Valverde’s mind? Was he in awe of van der Poel’s gifts? Or in disbelief at those white shorts?
“He’s got tremendous class,” Valverde said. “He’s exceptional, how he carries himself, how he handles the bike, and he’s only going to get better.”
There’s no denying that van der Poel has made an impression on everyone following his spectacular debut in the Flemish classics. Two wins and two podiums in five race starts in the one-days this spring are only a sampling of just how good the 24-year-old Dutchman really is.
Van der Poel blamed himself for Sunday’s crash, saying he broke a wheel after hitting a curb as the peloton barreled through a traffic island. He later toppled over but roared back to the main bunch to latch on with the favorites after chasing alone up the Koppenberg.
“Every climb I just rode à bloc,” van der Poel told Sporza TV. “Even after that, I was on top of the best. That was a serious confidence boost. To be able to drive up the Paterberg like that, I am very satisfied with that.”
What’s even more surprising is that van der Poel says he didn’t realize Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First) was up the road riding away with victory until about 5km to go. Van der Poel misunderstood his sport director, whom he thought was calling up time differences to the chase group behind, not the gaps to Bettiol off the front.
“I think I could have gone with Bettiol,” van der Poel said. “I didn’t realize he was up the road until I saw a figure in front of us. It would have been a different race if I had seen Bettiol leave. In the end, I was focused on my sprint.”
Van der Poel expects to have many more chances to shine on the one-day classics in the coming years. After a few more road races this spring, it will be a big push toward a gold medal in mountain biking next summer in Tokyo.
And what about those white shorts?
“That was perhaps the only thing that not everyone was enthusiastic about,” he laughed.