Mathieu van der Poel proved he’s human after all.
On Sunday, the Dutch superstar looked to have the elite men’s road championship title within his grasp, until he didn’t.
After stampeding into the day’s winning group, van der Poel suddenly and unexpectedly was gapped with just one lap to go. His pace dropped so abruptly it first appeared he had suffered a puncture or some sort of mechanical. Instead, van der Poel simply bonked.
“I felt pretty good, but suddenly I was empty,” van der Poel told Dutch TV. “It happened suddenly, even for myself. I don’t have an explanation.”
Van der Poel, 24, was the hot favorite to win Sunday’s brutal race of attrition. But as other pre-race favorites, such as Philippe Gilbert (Belgium) and defending champion Alejandro Valverde (Spain) abandoned in adverse conditions, it was going to become obvious that the inclement weather was going to be a decisive factor in the nearly seven-hour race.
Odds of a much-hyped van der Poel victory were looking good when he bridged across to what would become the winning group, linking up with eventual winner Mads Pedersen (Denmark), bronze medalist Stefan Küng (Switzerland) and Italy’s Gianni Moscon and silver medalist Matteo Trentin.
When the quintet had nearly a minute on the fast-dwindling chase group with one lap to go, it became clear that the winner was going to come out of the leaders.
Van der Poel was looking in control and anticipation was building for a Dutch victory when suddenly the world cycle-cross champion started to pedal squares. He lowered his head in exasperation as the leaders powered away toward the final battle for the podium.
“It was tough, very cold all day,” van der Poel told Dutch TV. “I think I ate enough. A [bonk], or something what looks like it, I couldn’t hardly pedal anymore.”
Despite showing strong end-of-season form at the recent Tour of Britain, Van der Poel had nothing left as the main chase group powered past him. He later finished alone in 43rd at 10:52 back, his face ashen and in shock.
“I was there, in the right group, riding for the win, then all of a sudden, the light went out,” he said. “I was eating and drinking, but I could not get warm. The last lap was too long. The cold had something to do with it. At least I finished my first worlds.”
The unexpected setback Sunday brings to an end van der Poel’s otherwise thrilling first serious foray into road racing. Next year, he’ll be mixing disciplines again, with cyclocross and road racing on his calendar before putting a focus on mountain biking for the Tokyo Olympic Games.
For now, road racing’s rainbow jersey will have to wait another year for the otherwise unstoppable van der Poel.