Mathieu van der Poel appeared liberated at the E3 Saxo Classic. With Milan-San Remo in the bag and the Tour of Flanders a week away, the Dutchman raced with abandon on Friday and digested defeat almost as swiftly as he’d sailed up the Taaienberg.
It was on Tom Boonen’s favourite climb that Van der Poel decided to open the race up with some 80km still to run. Only one man was able to follow: his old foe Wout van Aert, with Tadej Pogačar notably out of position and lagging behind.
There was a regrouping of sorts, but Van der Poel decided to light it up again on the Stationberg with 57km to go, coming off the hairy descent and almost opening straight up with a vicious acceleration on the cobbled drag.
Van Aert followed again and this time Pogačar was alive to it. Although they linked up with an earlier move, it was apparent these three were several cuts above anyone else in the race, and so it proved as they powered over the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont to ride the finale as a trio.
At the line, Van der Poel looked to open the sprint but had to bow to Van Aert, suggesting his prior exertions may have sapped his speed at the line.
“I have been a little too eager along the way, I think,” Van der Poel said.
“I wanted to make it a long and hard finale, to fully prepare myself for next week. That certainly worked out. I felt good on all climbs and was able to perform some nice forcings a few times.”
Van der Poel appeared the favourite for the three-up sprint, given Pogačar’s relative lack of finishing speed and given Van Aert had shown glimpses of weakness when Pogačar went hell-for-leather on the Oude Kwaremont.
However, the Milan-San Remo winner argued the conditions favoured Van Aert.
“We started at just over 200 meters, full of tailwind. So it wasn’t really that long a sprint,” Van der Poel said.
“In the end Wout van Aert was too strong but I can live with second place.”
Even if he bounced back so strongly for the sprint, it won’t have escaped Van der Poel’s attention that his old foe couldn’t hold the wheel on the Kwaremont, nor that the collective strength of his Jumbo-Visma team was effectively cancelled out.
There may have been mitigating circumstances in the form of a crash for Dylan van Baarle and a mechanical for Tiesj Benoot, but the numbers were even – Van der Poel with Søren Kragh Andersen for company and Van Aert with Nathan Van Hooydonck – before it came down to the final three.
As such, Van der Poel – who effectively said he’d raced in a way that would lay some foundations for a future race – saw his cup as very much half full.
“In the sprint, I came up short but I can live with second place,” he said.
“For sure I wanted to win today, I’ve never won this race. I’ve been close – my first time I was third [in 2021] and now I was second, so maybe I have to come back next year.”
Van der Poel is not due to race again before the Tour of Flanders, skipping Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen to focus fully on the Ronde next Sunday.
“Better to be beaten now than next week,” he said.