Opinion: Mathieu Van der Poel is still some way short of his best and that should terrify his rivals
Targeted by the other teams and watched like a hawk by the favourites, Mathieu van der Poel was unable to win a third WorldTour race in a row at Amstel Gold. His fourth place finish showed that he still is not quite back to his phenomenal best after being out with injury for so long. That form is surely still to come this season. Could we see it next weekend at Paris-Roubaix?
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It is three weeks since Mathieu Van der Poel returned to racing after several months out with knee and back injuries. After so long away, he and his Alpecin-Fenix employers thought it wise to ease him in with a mere Monument. As you do. At that race, Milan-Sanremo for those who need reminding, Van der Poel finished third.
Two weeks ago Van der Poel was finishing off his first stage race of the season, Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali, from which he took just the one win.
Last Sunday at De Ronde, 48 hours after having comprehensively vanquished all comers at Dwars door Vlaanderen, he broke away with Tadej Pogacar, faffed around a bit in the finale, got caught, and still comfortably finished off the sprint.
Today, in Amstel Gold Race, Van der Poel could “manage” no better than fourth place. The odds-on favourite before the race, that status only worked against him, as the Dutchman found himself trapped in the favourite box. Isolated by the greater team firepower and superior tactics of Ineos, he found himself obliged to do everything or nothing.
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“I didn’t have the legs to react to everybody,” he said after the race, “so I just gambled, and it didn’t work out today.”
You read that correctly. When Mathieu van der Poel doesn’t have the legs, in one of the highest ranked, hardest, and longest one-day races on the calendar, he still finishes fourth.
(By the way, in the same interview Van der Poel modestly suggested that the Amstel Gold Race course is not one to which he is not particularly suited.)
From most other riders, a quote like that could be easily dismissed. From Van der Poel, however, it served only as a reminder that he usually does have the legs to beat everybody who targets him. His victory at this very same event, three years ago, is still one of the most vividly thrilling finales to a race in years. Still then tactically quite immature, after getting caught flat-footed by the late escape of Julian Alaphilippe and Jakob Fuglsang, Van der Poel simply did all - no exaggeration - of the work at the front of the train that caught them, and still destroyed everyone who had hitched a lift with him in the sprint.
In this year’s edition he was not able to do the same. Some might say that simply shows him to human, after all. The more likely truth, however, is that with a mere nine race days in him since last year’s Paris-Roubaix, Van der Poel’s superhuman self is still to be seen this season.
If that’s the case, well, heaven help his rivals at the Hell of the North next weekend.
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Because while it may be easy to conclude from the result that he was in worse shape this Sunday than last, physically he was probably stronger. Not sufficiently so to fend off every single rider in the race, no, but still Pidcock, and pretty much all the rest of the favourites to boot.
The Alpecin-Fenix management have built a good team of riders to support Van der Poel, but when he is below his best, they reveal themselves for the mid-level lieutenants that they are.
In contrast, when he is at or above the level we know he can perform at, who his team-mates are, and what they can do for him on the day, is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what anyone else throws at him, he will be able to put out more watts, for longer than anyone else.
And Paris-Roubaix is much less of a team race than any other classic. All his colleagues will have to do is get him to the pave in one piece. Once there there’s not much anyone can do to help anyone else so he’ll be on his own but, odds are, so will everyone else. Then it’s simply a matter of staying at the front, punching it out to the finish. To win he just has to be better and he has to be lucky.
There can be no guarantees over the latter of those two factors. But we can be (almost) certain he’s going to be better. It could be a sight to see.
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