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Mathieu van der Poel. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty...

Sean Kelly talks Mathieu van der Poel, Egan Bernal, and the new stars of pro cycling

Irishman Sean Kelly dominated pro cycling for many years. In his retirement he has commentated for Eurosport and built up a reputation as one of the most astute analysts in the sport. He speaks to VeloNews about the shining talents who may well dominate the pro ranks for years to come.

During the 1980’s, Sean Kelly tussled with Adri van der Poel for the win in many of cycling’s biggest one day races. Now, over three decades later, the Irishman has tipped van der Poel’s son, Mathieu, to become the sport’s top rider. In fact, according to Kelly, Mathieu van der Poel has even more class than his father.

“What can you say? He is an amazing talent,” Kelly told VeloNews during a recent interview. “The big question is just how far can he go?”

Kelly was commenting in part on van der Poel, and in general on the sudden flourish of several young riders in the sport. The Dutchman is one of the best of those, clocking up an audaciously-strong victory in last year’s Amstel Gold Race, as well as winning Dwars door Vlaanderen, Brabantse Pijl and the Tour of Britain.

He has been even more successful off-road, landing multiple cyclocross victories including several world and European championships. He also won last year’s European MTB XC championships.

“On the bike I think Mathieu looks a bit like Adri,” said Kelly, who dominated the sport in the 1980s, winning Classics, stage races and the 1988 Vuelta a España. “But I think he is more of a talent than Adri. He is such a talent, the way he can win races.”

“The question is now: what different style of races he is capable of winning? That is what we have to wait and see.”

Mathieu Van Der Poel took his third Cyclocross World Championships in 2020. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Van der Poel: ‘I would definitely say there is more improvement in him’

Van der Poel is currently a member of the Alpecin-Fenix pro team, a Pro Continental squad which contests both cyclocross and road events. The 25 year old’s desire to compete in both disciplines plays to his strengths, but also comes at a cost. Kelly believes that if he steps away from off-road racing he will be even better.

“We know he can win Classics and mountain biking and all that, but will he become a stage race rider as well?” he asks. “From what we have seen in the shorter stage races, he is already very good, considering he hasn’t been doing a full road program.”

“Looking at stage races of six to eight days, you really have to be doing a full road program to be able to be at your best. But despite his small amount of road racing, he has already proved that he is able to be very competitive in the stage races he has ridden, like the Tour of Britain or the Tour of Norway.”

“If he concentrates more on the road in the future, I would definitely say there is more improvement in him. I feel he would be even stronger.”

Van der Poel showed clear evidence of his class during last year’s sprint Classic season. He wowed viewers of the sport with an emphatic and extraordinary win at the Amstel Gold Race, leading a long chase throughout the finale of the Dutch Classic, catching the leaders close to the line and still having the strength to win the sprint.

It wasn’t just the fact of his victory that impressed; those in the top ten included Jacob Fuglsang (Astana), Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott). Each are riders with vastly more experience than him; each were left confounded in his wake.

“I think Amstel Gold is his best result,” says Kelly, when asked what key performances spring to mind. “But look at the Tour of Flanders. Look at the way he was riding there. He had the crash there, was behind and the race was on up front. He was with a number of riders who were already pretty cooked. They weren’t any help. If I remember rightly, if I am not mistaken, it could have been a minute and a half that he was behind the leading group.”

Mathieu van der Poel of Team Corendon-Circus
Mathieu van der Poel of Team Corendon-Circus, during the 54th Amstel Gold Race 2019. Photo: Vincent Kalut-Pool/Getty Images

“I said to myself, ‘it is finished for him, it is over, he is never going to see the front again.’ Then he arrived back in the front. Although he didn’t win the Tour of Flanders, he did an unbelievable ride to get back up there again.”

“Certainly Amstel is one that springs to mind because the way he came back and then won it in the sprint. But he did an amazing performance also in the Tour of Flanders.”

The Ronde is certainly a future target for van der Poel. It suits his talents, is one of the most prestigious events in cycling and also has a particular family connection.

In 1986, his father Adri came to the finish in a five-man breakaway group. Kelly was also there, as were Canada’s Steve Bauer and the Belgians Jean-Philippe Vandenbrande and Ronny Van Holen. Kelly was the best sprinter, but was going so well that he did too much. He overestimated his own power while underestimating that of his main rival.

“I was going well on that day and in the final I remember I did a lot of the riding,” Kelly admits. “I probably did more of the pulling in the final than anybody. I felt I was going to win it. But when it came to the sprint, I started it on the front which, at the end of the Tour of Flanders in Merbeke, on an uphill finish, is not the way to do it. Especially when you have a rider like Van der Poel [on your wheel].”

“He was very good in that sprint. I started to suffer in the final 80, 100 meters…I was really starting to die, and he came in slow motion by me in the final couple of meters.”

Emulating his father in winning the same race would be a huge achievement for the younger van der Poel. Whether or not that happens this season, it’s a realistic target for the coming years. But it certainly won’t be the only race where he will shine.

Wout van Aert
Wout van Aert crashed out of the 2019 Tour de France. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Van Aert: ‘He’s definitely capable of winning the big Monuments’

In looking towards future Classics and stage races, Kelly sees another off-road star as being a big contender. Like Van der Poel, Wout van Aert also has three cyclocross world championships to his credit. The two have crossed swords for many years in cross racing, and look set to do the same in future road events.

“He is another super talent,” the Irishman says. “We can see in the last two years that he is able to come from the cyclocross and be very dominant again in the races. You have to have an enormous talent to do that.”

“The guys you are up against are training long distance. They are preparing solely for the road, whereas those guys, Van Aert included, are doing cyclocross. It does help you in that you have that explosivity, but you don’t have the endurance like some of the other riders. He can’t prepare solely for these long semi-Classic and Classic races.”

“He’s another super talent. We could see that with the performances he put in when he went to the Tour de France.”

Van Aert is also 25 years of age. The Belgian is yet to win a Classic, but was second in last year’s E3 Binckbank Classic, third in Strade Bianche and sixth in Milan-San Remo. He took the 2018 Danmark Rundt and, significantly, won a bunch sprint to nab stage ten of last year’s Tour de France. The Jumbo-Visma rider crashed out four days later, but showed he has recovered by taking the recent DVV Krawatencross.

“I think he is definitely capable of winning Classics,” says Kelly, looking towards the future. “He can take the big monuments. And then you can see also the way he won in the Tour de France, taking a bunch sprint there. That proves that he is super-fast.”

But he’s far from being a pure bunch sprinter. Kelly sees him as being more versatile than that. “Where it is hard racing, where there is maybe a little bit of an uphill finish, he also has a great sprint. So there is that ability there.”

“If you have that kind of sprint, of course, it always stands to you when you come to the end of a race. Like in a Classic, when you are that bit faster, you can win the sprint against a lot of other riders who are not going to be as quick.”

But which of the two does he feel is the bigger talent?

“It is difficult to say,” he states. “At the moment, I would say it is a little bit on Van der Poel’s side. But it is very, very close…”

Egan Arley Bernal
Bernal, at 22 years old, won the 2019 Tour de France. Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images.

Bernal: ‘He’s answered all the questions…Big Time’

If Van der Poel and Van Aert are the future of Classics racing, there are also riders who could well dominate Grand Tours. One of those has already achieved the biggest target in the sport. In 2019, Egan Bernal won the Tour de France at just 22 years of age. In doing so, he became the youngest winner in over 100 years.

The Colombian was riding the race for only the second time in his career. He was originally supposed to be riding in support of Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, but was elevated to co-leader when Froome did not start.

Any Tour de France win is impressive, but Kelly expresses admiration that a rider who was so young and who was still relatively unexperienced could triumph. “It’s the Tour de France. There’s stress, all that build-up around the race, all that pressure…you could feel that tension in the team, with all the journalists around. There are so many spectators too. You take everything [into consideration], and then the fact that it is a three week race… Would he be able to support that?”

“We can see that he answered all the questions, answered them big time. He proved that he is definitely a three week Tour rider. He is another one up there for the years to come, another one of the up and coming talents.”

It remains to be seen if Bernal will triumph again this year. Froome is vying to return to his former level after a near-catastrophic crash just prior to last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné. Thomas is motivated to try to win another Tour. The race is still months away but Bernal’s leadership there is far from assured.

Still, time is on his side and Kelly believes multiple Tour de France wins are possible. However he sounds a caution: “The only concern I would have is that some guys are hugely talented very, very young. Especially stage race riders, those for the three week tours. When you ride them when you are very young like Bernal did, will that have an effect on them in four or five years time? Will they be able to continue on putting in these performances when they are up against riders of the same age as them, but who are only then coming into their best? If you look back over the history, the guys winning big Tours start winning them maybe at 24.”

Looking back to Kelly’s era, Laurent Fignon is a clear example. He won his first Tour de France at 22, his second at 23. But while he went close again in 1989, finishing second to Greg LeMond in Paris, he never returned to the same level he was at when he took his second Tour. Those two early wins were the only overall victories he got in the Tour.

“So those guys…how long will they last?” says Kelly. “That would be my concern. Maybe they are doing too much too young, and might not have a career as long as you would expect it to be.”

Kelly’s warning refers to Bernal, but he also mentions another gifted young rider. He sees him as another huge talent, and he also hopes he doesn’t do too much, too soon.

Tadej Pogacar outsprints Alejandro Valverde for the win at the 2020 Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Pogacar: ‘The way he was riding was amazing’

Tadej Pogacar has certainly impressed thus far in his career. The Slovenian stepped up to WorldTour level last year with the UAE Team Emirates squad and had an exceptional season, taking the Volta ao Algarve, the Tour of California and nabbing three stage wins, third overall and the best young rider award at the Vuelta a España. That was Pogacar’s debut Grand Tour and he wasted no time in making an impression.

“He is an amazing talent as well,” says Kelly. “We could see that last year at the beginning of the season, the way he won some of those week-long races. Okay, for a guy in his first year in the ranks…maybe you prepare really well and you can be in unbelievable shape at the beginning of the season. But then he went to the Vuelta. The way he was riding there was amazing, the way he won some stages there.”

“And it was his style of racing as well that was spectacular…he wasn’t afraid to attack a leading group of 30 riders, despite some of the big names having teammates there with them… To do that, you have to have cojones [balls], as they say in Spanish.”

“He attacked from far out, went on and won the stage. He is certainly another up and coming talent from the new crop that is coming through now.”

Remco Evenepoel
Remco Evenepoel of Belgium and Team Deceuninck Quick-Step. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Evenepole: ‘Another guy with huge promise’

Kelly tips a fifth rider as having huge ability. He believes that Remco Evenepoel could also become one of the most dominant riders in future years. The Belgian is just 20 years of age but is already in his second year as a professional, having started racing for Deceuninck-QuickStep as he left the junior ranks.

Stepping up to the WorldTour without racing as an under-23 rider is practically unheard of, but Evenepoel is not an ordinary rider. He dominated junior competition in 2018, winning both the time trial and road race at the junior world championships, doing the same in the European championships and also winning several prestigious stage races.

His debut season as a pro was hugely impressive, winning the Clásica San Sebastián, the Tour of Belgian and the European time trial championships. He was also second to Rohan Dennis in the Elite world time trial championships.

“Evenepoel is another guy with huge promise,” says Kelly. “It is amazing the way he came from the juniors and then just jumped straight into the WorldTour, winning races.”

“I think we saw that his bike handling was a bit of a problem when he went into the big races in the early part of last year. He had a few spills. The team took him out, gave him a little bit of a rest because he didn’t really have the time to learn how to ride in a big peloton.”

“Being with the pros is different to being in the junior bunch. It’s more aggressive, and the bike handing is probably that much better. But he overcame that; we could see that later in the year when he won San Sebastian and took some other stage races. Again, another amazing talent.”

Last question: what are your thoughts on why this wave of young riders is coming through now? Why are they so good so young?

“Well, first of all, they have the talent,” Kelly answers. “Those guys are just born with this ability. And then I suppose the training methods are a lot better now. They all have good coaches as juniors, they train so well.”

“They are developing and becoming really strong that much younger. Whereas if you go back thirty years ago, the guys perhaps didn’t have that sort of specific training, they didn’t become very strong at a younger age.”

“Above all, though, the most important thing is that they have that big, big talent there.”