It can be such a silly sport sometimes, y’know?
To engage with professional cycling on any level means entering into an implicit covenant: we accept the sometimes mundane hours spent on mindless pedaling, find joy in the little things and idiosyncrasies, and take it in good faith that the sport will make it all worth it.
Sometimes, like yesterday, it feels like a bit more of a raw deal than usual.
It strains credulity to think that a rogue individual with such dastardly motives as *checks notes* offering encouragement to their grandparents on television could have caused a crash that brought down nearly half the peloton (including one of the presumptive favorites). But, a few profoundly stupid seconds with their back to the race, and there we were. Another crash of similar magnitude just before the final sealed the deal on an inauspicious start to the sport’s greatest spectacle.
In the aftermath, everyone — riders nursing various injuries, press, fans, or otherwise — seemed to be feeling the same tension, almost as though recoiling after being bitten. But each day brings new possibilities. Cycling, to its credit, is a remarkably resilient sport, habitually rolling with punches and turning up ready to put its best foot forward again.
Still, today of all days, a reminder of what makes this sport so compelling and special clearly wouldn’t go amiss.
Thank fuck for Mathieu van der Poel.
How do you describe him? You could say that he’s strong, or that he’s fast, or that he’s got an enormous engine, but each of these things is equally true of Wout van Aert. And for all the inevitable comparisons between them given their inextricably linked careers, they are very much not the same.
What defines Mathieu van der Poel above all else is suddenness, and it’s a quality that is every bit as much a matter of ethos as physiology.
Which was the most Mathieu van der Poel moment of the spring season? Was it the near fourteen-hundred watts he unloaded to leave Julian Alaphilippe for dead in the final of Strade Bianche?
Or do you prefer his exploits the following weekend, in that rain-soaked classics-style stage at Tirreno Adriatico? You know, in which with over fifty kilometers left, he decided to ditch the rest of the favorites with a half-finished rice cake hanging out of his mouth and soloed his way to victory, and when asked about the reason for the timing of his attack, simply replied that he had been cold.
Sudden, not just for the explosiveness, but equally for the impetuousness that makes him the world’s most unpredictable rider.
For a time, his father sought to tame that impetuousness, hoping to mold him into a more measured competitor. But for all the inevitable comparisons between them given their familial link, he and his father are very much not the same.
It’s not like Adrie van der Pool doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Twice a Monument winner, twice a Tour de France stage winner, once a cyclocross World Champion, and with dozens of other prestigious wins across his two disciplines completing a glittering palmares, he was one of the most accomplished riders of his generation.
But as he has often acknowledged, even on his best day he possessed but a fraction of his son’s outrageous gifts. Though by no means short on talent, Adrie won many of his biggest victories by outwitting stronger rivals through superior racecraft; a concept Mathieu has often had little time for. In Mathieu van der Poel’s world, there are no stronger rivals.
So, like all decent fathers, the elder Van der Poel seems to have learned the value in picking his battles and recognizing the limit of his influence, and the younger’s determination to forge his own path has seen him flourish. His audacity (mostly) hasn’t impeded him from collecting victories but has made him, of late, the most prolific creator of the sort of indelible moments cycling thrives on.
Amstel Gold 2019, Binckbank Tour Stage 5 last year, hell, even his near-miss at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne this spring — every cycling fan has a favorite insane Mathieu van der Poel moment, and what’s striking is the ever-growing number of options to choose from.
In the weeks preceding the Tour this year, word began to circulate that another Mathieu moment was coming, and soon it was all anyone could talk about. To make your Grand Tour debut in the brightly-lit fishbowl that is the Tour de France is bold enough to begin with, but the story was that Van der Poel had even more in mind. He intended not only to show up, but claim a stage victory and spend some time in the yellow jersey his maternal grandfather Raymond Poulidor never got to wear.
Nicknamed “The Eternal Second” for the position he often held behind countryman and rival Jacques Anquetil (and later, Eddy Merckx), Poulidor finished on the podium of the Tour eight times without ever once leading the race.
As with every other candidate for comparison in Van der Poel’s life, he and his grandfather are, again, very much not the same. To start, Van der Poel is every bit the platonic ideal of a classics man in build: tall and lean, but broad-shouldered and muscular, where Poulidor was a diminutive climber.
Further, Poulidor himself acknowledged that his greatest shortcoming as a rider had been his own lack of ambition, and the perpetual psychological edge his rivals held over him. In stark contrast, Poulidor remembered a young Mathieu as so fiercely competitive that, when he played games with his older brother David (also a cyclist and teammate on Alpecin-Fenix), he would rather leave the table than lose.
And yet, for all their differences, Poulidor is the one from whom Van der Poel has most often drawn inspiration. Despite (at least initially, if perhaps later because of) his always-second-best status, Poulidor endeared himself to fans much more than Anquetil ever did, owing to his carefree, attack-minded approach. Perhaps admiration for his grandfather plays a role in Van der Poel’s own aggressive riding style and impromptu, sudden attacks.
“He has an exceptional character,” Poulidor said. “He cycles with pleasure and takes nothing seriously. And that is perhaps his strongest point. He is always relaxed."
But lest anyone attribute that quality to his influence, Poulidor also observed that Mathieu “maps out his own career” and “doesn’t listen to anyone.” Furthermore, he shared Adrie’s view that Mathieu was far better than either of them ever had been.
When Poulidor passed away in 2019 after a prolonged hospital stay due to heart problems, Van der Poel dedicated his next cyclocross World Cup victory in Tabor to his memory. But in the back of his mind, he harbored another goal for honoring his grandfather: the aforementioned yellow jersey.
At the team presentation Thursday, Van der Poel’s Alpecin-Fenix team unveiled a special, limited edition purple-and-gold kit, modeled after the one Poulidor wore for Mercier during his own career. It was initially only to be worn during that presentation, but after much public outcry and an appeal from Alpecin-Fenix, Tour de France organizer ASO granted special permission for the team to wear the jerseys for the race’s first stage.
The implication was clear: the nature of the stage — particularly its uphill sprint finish — was ideally suited to Van der Poel’s attributes. If Van der Poel could suit up in his grandfather’s colors, and then change them out for the Maillot Jaune after winning the stage, well, that would really be something, wouldn’t it?
But whether the moment was too big, or he simply didn’t have the legs, or something in between, Van der Poel failed to make this moment materialize. Instead, Julian Alaphilippe, motivated by his own special inspiration after the birth of his son earlier this month, rode away on the steep initial section of the final climb in Landerneau. Nobody brought him back.
Still, for Van der Poel, there would be more chances. As ever, in cycling there is almost always a next time, and in Grand Tour cycling, the next time often comes the next day.
Today’s parcours is similarly lumpy and also ends with a short, steep uphill sprint, but today’s final obstacle is tougher. The Mur de Bretagne is named due for a convenient coincidence: the town of Mûr-de-Bretagne has a name reminiscent of a much more storied cycling climb, the Mur de Huy, known as the main feature of La Flèche Wallonne. The Breton climb is easier than its Ardennes cousin, but still provides a stiff test.
On the first of two ascents of the Mur, Van der Poel sprinted away from the pack in order to claim the eight bonus seconds on offer for the first across the line. With Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič outsprinting Alaphilippe for second and third to claim the remaining time bonuses, Van der Poel’s path to the jersey has gotten a bit easier. Still, with a tough finale like this, nothing is to be taken for granted.
Rolling in at the bottom of the Mur for the second time, the Ineos Grenadiers are setting a rapid pace on the front. With just over a kilometer and a half to go, Van der Poel is characteristically absent at the front. Poor positioning is one of his biggest struggles, and the energy expended moving up from the middle of the pack during yesterday’s final may have contributed to his inability to follow Alaphilippe’s attack.
Instead, his teammate Xandro Meurisse attacks with UAE’s Davide Formolo in his wheel, and the two open up a small gap before both gassing out in truly miserable-looking fashion. For the next few hundred meters, everyone remains locked in formation, until Nairo Quintana comes streaking up the left side of the road, looking a tad explosive for the first time since lockdown.
From nowhere, Van der Poel materializes behind him, strangling his brake hoods and pedaling furiously, closing the gap to the Colombian’s wheel. They’re all back together under the Flamme Rouge, when Sonny Colbrelli abruptly kicks, swerving to the left.
This is a real threat. Colbrelli is a genuine fast man, and fresh off of a win at the Italian National Championships on a slightly abridged version of the very climb-heavy Imola Worlds course from last year, is climbing better than at any other point in his career. If he’s allowed a gap as the climb levels out near the top, it might be curtains.
Sensing the danger, Van der Poel immediately concludes that this is the move. With an instant acceleration, he’s on Colbrelli’s wheel, followed closely by Pogačar and Roglič. The four go free, and nobody else can follow.
Suddenly, without taking more than a moment to recover, Van der Poel is off, springing forward out of his saddle and sprinting up along the barriers on the right. Colbrelli tries to follow, but to no avail. With seven hundred meters to go, Van der Poel’s gap is expanding so quickly that everyone else may as well be standing still.
Pushing on into the final few hundred meters, he checks back a few times, looking under his left shoulder to make sure nobody’s bridging up to him. Hah. Imagine. Mathieu, nobody’s catching you here. He pedals hard until he reaches the Skoda logos at the finish, hoping to ensure his gap will be big enough to claim the race lead. Crossing the line, he looks upward and points a finger toward the heavens, and everyone knows precisely what it means.
Pogačar and Roglič again claim second and third, taking more bonus seconds and further distancing the rest of their competition in the general classification, but even their sprint against each other looks a bit half-hearted. Today is about one rider, and everyone else may as well be playing a different sport.
Unclipping from his bike, Van der Poel collapses to the pavement and sits there, cutting a familiar figure of mingled elation and total exhaustion. After (understandably) taking a moment to process his emotions with a good cry, he rallies to give a post-race television interview. He remains mostly composed, gamely answering questions about his gamble for bonus seconds on the first ascent of the Mur.
Then, predictably and almost cruelly, he is asked who he was thinking about as he crossed the line. Choked up and eyes welling, he can hardly get the words out.
“My granddad, of course.”
Later at the presser, he is reflective, giving voice to his wish that his grandfather could have been here in order to take a picture with him in the jersey, which would have been “quite a photo, I think.”
He says that he hasn’t given much thought to the idea of what it means for him to wear the jersey on his own terms, as it hasn’t even really sunk in yet. For once, the idea that something hasn’t sunk in yet doesn’t feel like a meaningless platitude, as one really does get the impression that he’s hardly thought of anything but his grandfather since he crossed the line.
Thankfully, with a couple of flat stages ahead, he should have a few days to get comfortable in the jersey before likely surrendering it after stage five’s individual time trial.
Whether or not he intends to see this Tour through to completion remains a matter of some speculation, and for what it’s worth, Van der Poel doesn’t seem entirely sure himself. The Olympics remain his main goal for the season, and he may well bow out early to ensure optimal preparation on the mountain bike.
Regardless, he has left his mark on this Tour in a way only he could, and even if he can’t conceptualize what it means to have done this beyond honoring Poulidor, we would all do well to try. After yesterday, this Tour was desperate for something beautiful to remind us why we’ve been waiting all year for it.
As he so often does, Mathieu van der Poel delivered.