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Where was Mathieu van der Poel? Dylan van Baarle fills void to deliver overdue victory

A 'van' won Dwars door Vlaanderen at the Belgian midweek classic, but not the one many were expecting.

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It was an unexpected “van” riding away with victory at Wednesday’s midweek classic at Dwars door Vlaanderen.

Dylan van Baarle, a journeyman classics veteran on Ineos Grenadiers, powered clear to score an overdue victory on the pavé. The Dutch rider fended off a determined chase group to win only for the fifth time of his career, and the first over the bumpy roads of the Flemish Ardennes.

“I think last weekend I showed that I was in good shape, and that those places of honor of the past years did not just come out of the blue,” said van Baarle, who was eighth Gent-Wevelgem and seventh at E3 Saxo Bank Classic. “This is just a confirmation that I am on the right track.”

Behind him, everyone was wondering: where was Mathieu van der Poel?

The Alpecin-Fenix star lined up as defending champion — the 2020 edition was canceled last spring — but van der Poel never entered the frame.

When the race broke up in the closing, decisive kilometers, the hulking mass of the Dutch national champion’s jersey was nowhere near the sharp end of the race. Instead, van der Poel worked for teammate Tim Merlier, who kicked to third in the race.

Van der Poel crossed the line anonymously in 58th at 1:41 back.

“It just wasn’t my day,” van der Poel said with a shrug. “I didn’t feel good already early in the race. Maybe it was the heat. I don’t like it. I had enough to eat and drink, so that wasn’t it.”

Many were expecting van der Poel to frolic to victory Wednesday as a warm-up to Sunday’s big clash at Tour of Flanders. With whispers hitting a fever pitch that Paris-Roubaix will likely be postponed until October, all eyes are on Sunday’s battle across the bergs of Flanders.

And Wednesday’s Dwars, with several top Flanders favorites looking for one more hit out before Sunday, was meant to be a telling adventure.

Things uncharacteristically fell flat for van der Poel, who’s been running hot since the spring campaign started.

“Better now than Sunday,” van der Poel said stoically. “I’ll talk to my trainers, but I hope to be better for Flanders. I really don’t know what happened. I just didn’t have the legs today.”

Unseasonably warm temperatures — never a van der Poel favorite – marked the day. Van Baarle took the race by the scruff of the neck, and jumped on the Berg ten Houte with just over 50km to go. Despite some early counter moves, van Baarle was gone.

A chase group did form behind van Baarle, but some of the heavy hitters were either on siesta mode or missed the moment. Van Baarle, always strong against the clock, time trialed it home to fend off the chase.

It was the first major classic victory for van Baarle, who’s finished three times in the top-10 at Ronde van Vlaanderen.

“I attacked and I was alone,” van Baarle said. “I was actually hoping some guys would come along. That didn’t happen and then I kept driving until a group would join. It never came. Then I could only think the last 30 km, just go for a ride, go for a ride, go for a ride. I am glad I made it.”

With the win, van Baarle will see his stock rise ahead of De Ronde.

With Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) also racing anonymously Wednesday — the world champion rode in with the front group at 22nd place — and van der Poel waving the white flag, two of cycling’s “Three Tenors” will be hoping to hit their notes Sunday.

And Wout van Aert? The Gent-Wevelgem winner took the day off, but surely he was watching with interest to measure up his would-be rivals for De Ronde four days’ time.