Van Aert and van der Poel came into the final kilometers together after a dramatic battle across the cobblestones. In the final sprint for the line, van der Poel opened the sprint with 100 meters to go, and his final surge held off van Aert by a fraction of a wheel length.
After 244 kilometers, the margin of victory was just a few centimeters.
“I can’t believe I’ve won a monument,” van der Poel said at the finish. “I’m speechless. I wasn’t sure I had won.”
The photo finish came after a dramatic final 50km that saw van Aert and van der Poel attack out of the front group alongside Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck–Quick-Step).
Alaphilippe’s aggression forced the final strategic moves in the 244km race. Alaphilippe attacked first on the Koppenberg with 50km to go, and his surge drew out the pre-race favorites into an elite front group. Alaphilippe then surged on the cobbled section of the Steenbeekdries, and that move drew out van Aert and van der Poel. The trio surged away from the peloton, and the race appeared destined to become a three-man slugfest over the final 35km.
And then, Alaphilippe tangled with a race motorcycle, and the impact sent the Frenchman crashing to the tarmac. The crash knocked him out of the race entirely, as van Aert and van der Poel pedaled off to the thrilling finish.
Van Aert and van der Poel matched each other on the Oude Kwaremont and then the Paterberg, while behind a chase group of 20 tried in vain to pull the duo back. With the group hovering around 50 seconds, the duo pedaled into the final 3km, as a light rain began to fall.
It was a classic finish to the season’s final monument.
How the race played out
The 104th edition of the Tour of Flanders was a truly singular event, due to the global COVID-19 pandemic and the mid-October race date. The cancelation of Paris-Roubaix made Flanders the final monument of 2020, which placed extra importance on the race.
The race also played out in a bizarre fashion, with fans prohibited from standing along the 244-kilometer route. Helicopter images of the race showed mostly empty roads, and the famed cobbled climbs were devoid of the usual fanfare and flying flags.
Despite the strange circumstances, the race played out in typical fashion.
The day’s early break contained Gregor Mühlberger (Bora-Hansgrohe), Samuele Battistella (NTT Pro Cycling), Danny van Poppel (Circus-Wanty Gobert), Gijs Van Hoecke (CCC Team), Dimitri Peyskens (Bingoal-Wallonie Bruxelles), and Fabio Van Den Bossche (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise).
Behind, the favorites stayed safely in the bunch, however there were crashes. Van Aert took a tumble with 114km to go, but was able to get back onto his bicycle.
The breakaway group spent much of the day together off the front, but the gap began to fall inside 70km to go, and with 50km to go the remnants of the group were absorbed.
As the race began to heat up, world champion Julian Alaphilippe (Elegant-Quick-Step) poured on the pressure. First, he attacked on the Paterberg and went clear with Total Direct Energie rider Anthony Turgis.
After that move was reeled in, Alaphilippe attacked again on the rolling Steenbeekdries sector of cobbles with about 42km to go. That move drew out van der Poel, and for a moment, it appeared that the two strongmen would power away to the finish.
But the aggression did not go unnoticed. Wout van Aert jumped out and bridged solo to the leading two, making contact on the Taaienberg.
With a chase group of 20 pushing on behind, the trio’s lead continued to expand and it appeared the 2020 Tour of Flanders podium contained these three heads of state.
The chase group contained Alberto Bettiol and Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First), Yves Lampaert and Florian Sénéchal (Elegant-Quick-Step), John Degenkolb (Lotto-Soudal), Oliver Naesen (AG2R), Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), Valentin Madouas (Groupama–FDJ), Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-McLaren), Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers), Tiesj Benoot (Sunweb), Alexander Kristoff (UAE), Dimitri Claeys (Cofidis), Arjen Livyns (Bingoal-Wallonie Bruxelles), Xavier Meurisse and Andrea Pasqualon (Circus-Wanty), and Turgis.
That’s when Alaphilippe hit a motorbike the group was passing and went down hard, ending his race.
As the Frenchman writhed on the tarmac in pain, van Aert and van der Poel sped away to the final climbs.
Coming onto the cobbled Kwaremont for the second and final time, van der Poel led van Aert up until the midpoint of the climb where it levels out. Van Aert came through and from there on, the pair rotated smoothly.
Behind, Oliver Naesen went clear of the chasing group on the Kwaremont, now down to 12 riders.
Flying down the narrow serpentine road to the foot of the cobbled Paterberg, van der Poel again led, taking the hard right hand corner onto the short but fiendishly steep Paterberg. Only 360 meters long, the Paterberg kicks to over 20 percent towards the top.
Neither man attacked the other on the Paterberg, so with 13km to go it appeared the race would come down to a two-man sprint.
Behind, Naesen fought his bike up the Paterberg, but held his gap over the chasers, led by Vanmarcke, who had crashed earlier in the day and chased back solo. But all of those surges did little to bring back the front two.
In the final kilometer, van der Poel led, and immediately let off the pressure. What had been a high-speed gallop turned into a high-pressure but low-speed gamble, with neither man willing to lead out the other too early.
Who would go first?
At 180m van Aert launched his sprint, and van der Poel immediately reacted. The two drag raced to the line, with van der Poel just nipping the Belgian at the line.
The victory came 34 years after van der Poel’s father, Adri, won the race. When the elder van der Poel won the 1986 edition, he wore the race number 51.
On Sunday, Mathieu van der Poel also wore race number 51.
“It’s incredible. Maybe the number 51 is something special,” van der Poel said. “I didn’t really believe it, but maybe I am starting to believe it.”
Ronde van Vlaanderen - Tour des Flandres ME Results
|1||VAN DER POEL Mathieu||Alpecin-Fenix||5:43:17|
|2||VAN AERT Wout||Team Jumbo-Visma||0:00|
|3||KRISTOFF Alexander||UAE-Team Emirates||0:08|
|4||TURGIS Anthony||Team Total Direct Energie||0:08|
|5||LAMPAERT Yves||Deceuninck - Quick Step||0:08|
|6||CLAEYS Dimitri||Cofidis, Solutions Crédits||0:08|
|7||NAESEN Oliver||AG2R La Mondiale||0:08|
|8||VAN BAARLE Dylan||INEOS Grenadiers||0:08|
|9||DEGENKOLB John||Lotto Soudal||0:08|
|10||BENOOT Tiesj||Team Sunweb||0:08|
|11||TEUNS Dylan||Bahrain - McLaren||0:08|
|12||SÉNÉCHAL Florian||Deceuninck - Quick Step||0:08|
|13||ASGREEN Kasper||Deceuninck - Quick Step||0:08|
|14||MADOUAS Valentin||Groupama - FDJ||0:08|
|15||MEURISSE Xandro||Circus - Wanty Gobert||0:08|
|16||BETTIOL Alberto||EF Pro Cycling||0:08|
|17||VANMARCKE Sep||EF Pro Cycling||0:16|
|18||DE BUYST Jasper||Lotto Soudal||2:41|
|19||POLITT Nils||Israel Start-Up Nation||2:41|
|20||BYSTRØM Sven Erik||UAE-Team Emirates||2:41|
|21||VALGREN Michael||NTT Pro Cycling||2:41|
|22||CAPIOT Amaury||Sport Vlaanderen - Baloise||2:41|
|24||PASQUALON Andrea||Circus - Wanty Gobert||2:41|
|25||BARDET Romain||AG2R La Mondiale||2:41|
|26||STUYVEN Jasper||Trek - Segafredo||2:41|
|27||KEUKELEIRE Jens||EF Pro Cycling||2:41|
|28||GOGL Michael||NTT Pro Cycling||2:49|
|29||LIVYNS Arjen||Bingoal - Wallonie Bruxelles||3:05|
|30||WALSCHEID Max||NTT Pro Cycling||4:03|
|31||ALLEGAERT Piet||Cofidis, Solutions Crédits||4:03|
|32||VAN ASBROECK Tom||Israel Start-Up Nation||4:03|
|33||NIEUWENHUIS Joris||Team Sunweb||4:03|
|35||NAESEN Lawrence||AG2R La Mondiale||4:03|
|36||KLUGE Roger||Lotto Soudal||4:03|
|37||DRUCKER Jempy||BORA - hansgrohe||4:03|
|38||DECLERCQ Tim||Deceuninck - Quick Step||4:03|
|39||ARNDT Nikias||Team Sunweb||4:03|
|40||MOLARD Rudy||Groupama - FDJ||4:03|
|41||FRISON Frederik||Lotto Soudal||4:03|
|42||VAN HOECKE Gijs||CCC Team||4:03|
|43||BURGHARDT Marcus||BORA - hansgrohe||4:03|
|44||HOULE Hugo||Astana Pro Team||4:03|
|45||VAN GESTEL Dries||Team Total Direct Energie||4:03|
|46||VANDENBERGH Stijn||AG2R La Mondiale||4:03|
|47||COLBRELLI Sonny||Bahrain - McLaren||4:03|
|49||VAN HOOYDONCK Nathan||CCC Team||4:05|
|50||ROWE Luke||INEOS Grenadiers||4:05|
|51||MARCATO Marco||UAE-Team Emirates||4:05|
|52||BOASSON HAGEN Edvald||NTT Pro Cycling||4:08|
|54||KWIATKOWSKI Michał||INEOS Grenadiers||4:08|
|55||HALLER Marco||Bahrain - McLaren||4:16|
|56||LEMOINE Cyril||Cofidis, Solutions Crédits||4:59|
|57||DEVENYNS Dries||Deceuninck - Quick Step||4:59|
|58||EEKHOFF Nils||Team Sunweb||4:59|
|59||PEDERSEN Mads||Trek - Segafredo||4:59|
|60||LANGEVELD Sebastian||EF Pro Cycling||4:59|
|61||OSS Daniel||BORA - hansgrohe||4:59|
|62||TRENTIN Matteo||CCC Team||4:59|
|63||TOUZÉ Damien||Cofidis, Solutions Crédits||4:59|
|64||GENIETS Kevin||Groupama - FDJ||4:59|
|65||OLIVEIRA Rui||UAE-Team Emirates||7:26|
|66||BARTHE Cyril||B&B Hotels - Vital Concept p/b KTM||7:26|
|67||VAN DEN BOSSCHE Fabio||Sport Vlaanderen - Baloise||7:26|
|68||PRADES Eduard||Movistar Team||7:26|
|71||LECROQ Jérémy||B&B Hotels - Vital Concept p/b KTM||9:36|
|72||JANSE VAN RENSBURG Reinardt||NTT Pro Cycling||9:36|
|73||ŠTYBAR Zdeněk||Deceuninck - Quick Step||9:36|
|74||THEUNS Edward||Trek - Segafredo||10:30|
|75||BEULLENS Cédric||Sport Vlaanderen - Baloise||10:30|
|77||DE VREESE Laurens||Astana Pro Team||10:30|
|78||MENTEN Milan||Sport Vlaanderen - Baloise||10:30|
|79||VAN KEIRSBULCK Guillaume||CCC Team||10:30|
|80||BOHLI Tom||UAE-Team Emirates||10:30|
|81||SKUJIŅŠ Toms||Trek - Segafredo||10:30|
|82||LAPORTE Christophe||Cofidis, Solutions Crédits||10:30|
|83||MAITRE Florian||Team Total Direct Energie||10:30|
|84||SCHÄR Michael||CCC Team||10:30|
|85||SPRENGERS Thomas||Sport Vlaanderen - Baloise||10:30|
|86||TILLER Rasmus||NTT Pro Cycling||10:30|
|87||MARTINELLI Davide||Astana Pro Team||10:30|
|88||WIRTGEN Luc||Bingoal - Wallonie Bruxelles||10:30|
|89||GIDICH Yevgeniy||Astana Pro Team||10:30|
|90||WIRTGEN Tom||Bingoal - Wallonie Bruxelles||10:30|
|91||RUTSCH Jonas||EF Pro Cycling||10:30|
|92||TAMINIAUX Lionel||Bingoal - Wallonie Bruxelles||10:30|
|93||JACOBS Johan||Movistar Team||10:30|
|94||SOUPE Geoffrey||Team Total Direct Energie||10:30|
|95||LIENHARD Fabian||Groupama - FDJ||10:30|
|96||KIRSCH Alex||Trek - Segafredo||10:30|
|97||PÖSTLBERGER Lukas||BORA - hansgrohe||10:30|
|98||SCHACHMANN Maximilian||BORA - hansgrohe||10:30|
|99||LAWLESS Chris||INEOS Grenadiers||10:30|
|100||MÜHLBERGER Gregor||BORA - hansgrohe||10:30|
|101||DOULL Owain||INEOS Grenadiers||10:30|
|102||KÜNG Stefan||Groupama - FDJ||10:30|
|103||KNEES Christian||INEOS Grenadiers||10:30|
|104||EENKHOORN Pascal||Team Jumbo-Visma||10:30|
|106||ROOSEN Timo||Team Jumbo-Visma||10:30|
|107||VAN POPPEL Boy||Circus - Wanty Gobert||10:30|
|108||VAN POPPEL Danny||Circus - Wanty Gobert||10:30|
|109||KOCH Jonas||CCC Team||10:30|
|110||SUTER Joel||Bingoal - Wallonie Bruxelles||10:30|
|111||TERPSTRA Niki||Team Total Direct Energie||10:30|
Results provided by ProCyclingStats.