To fully comprehend the magnitude and emotional pull of what Mathieu van der Poel achieved on Sunday at Mur-de-Bretagne it's necessary to wind back 24 hours and see how his first day on the Tour de France panned out.
For the opening stage of the Tour on Saturday, Van der Poel's Alpecin-Fenix team were given special dispensation to wear the limited-edition purple and amber kit they showed off at the team presentation in homage to the Mercier outfit of the late Raymond Poulidor – the grandfather of their star rider.
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But it was someone else’s grandparents who inadvertently stole the spotlight during the race, when a spectator holding a message to “Opi & Omi” – a German term for “grandpa and granny” – knocked Tony Martin off his bike and caused a ripple-effect which tore through the peloton.
Thankfully, by the end of the weekend, Van der Poel ensured that PouPou, and not Opi, was the stand-out grandfather of the Brittany grand depart.
On his first day on the Tour, Van der Poel was not caught up in the spectator spill and also avoided hitting the deck in the high-speed pile-up which marred the finale. But he found himself isolated and out of position at the foot of the final climb at Landerneau – and when Julian Alaphilippe attacked early with just over 2km remaining, Van der Poel was in no position to respond.
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One of the most eagerly anticipated Tour debuts in recent years thus ended up with a fairly innocuous twentieth place after Alaphilippe put in a timely reminder just why it’s he who wears the rainbow bands – the Frenchman swashbuckling himself to a sixth career win on the Tour and taking yet another yellow jersey in the process.
It looked like Van der Poel’s bid to wear the yellow jersey that always eluded his grandfather had fallen flat. Eighteen seconds down in the general classification, it was always going to take something special for the Alpecin-Fenix leader to turn things round – and “special” wasn’t the half of it.
Highlights: Van der Poel soars to emotional Stage 2 win to claim yellow
With a bonus sprint at the top of the first passage of the Cote de Menehiez (the climb often, albeit incorrectly, referred to as the Mur de Bretagne), Van der Poel struck out even earlier than Alaphilippe had one day earlier: with a whole 17km remaining.
When he failed to open up a significant gap, it looked like his plan had backfired – certainly if you considered, like most people, that Van der Poel’s plan was just to win the stage. But he was simply – as if there was anything “simple” about it – taking a big enough buffer to secure the eight bonus seconds going over the top to keep the yellow dream alive.
If Alaphilippe was alert to the danger, he was also incapable of holding off Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic in the fight for the remaining bonus seconds. The Slovenians took five and two seconds respectively, and in so doing, got fans salivating about the prospect of them going shoulder-to-shoulder at every opportunity for the next three weeks (we’re only two days in but already last year’s top two are putting on quite a show).
Over the top, Van der Poel sat up once he was joined by the chasers – and soon a reduced peloton reformed on the loop ride back to the foot of the climb for the second bite of the apple.
Here, it was Alpecin-Fenix rider, Xandro Meurisse, who put in the first dig, riding clear with Pogacar’s teammate Davide Formolo before looking over his head and realising that he was being followed by the Italian, and not his leader. Had Van der Poel’s earlier efforts caught up with him? Ye of little faith…
In the event, it was Nairo Quintana, doing his best to endear himself to the locals in the colours of the Brittany-based Arkea-Samsic team, who made the first proper attack. But then Van der Poel put the final part of his masterclass jigsaw in place. With one kilometre remaining, he powered clear under the flamme rouge and left the Colombian for dead.
Behind, it was the same stellar support cast who led the chase as the first ascent. If Alaphilippe admitted on Saturday that he took on the final climb “as if there were no tomorrow”, then on Sunday, it showed. For Van der Poel’s move may well have “only” resulted in a maiden Tour stage win had the Frenchman responded and picked up some bonuses with a strong finish of his own.
Those bonuses, however, went once again to Pog and Rog, as Alaphilippe, in fifth, saw his grip on the race lead come undone. It may have been a day late, but it was perhaps all the sweeter for one of cycling’s great animators.
“I have no words. I really don’t know what to say,” a visibly shell-shocked Van der Poel said moments after his win. Asked to elaborate on his early move on the first ascent, he said: “I gambled a little bit. I went on the first time because I knew I needed the bonus seconds if I wanted the jersey. It was my last chance to get it.”
The post-race interviewer – Seb Piquet, the voice of Radio Tour – then probed, a little cheaply, perhaps, but understandably given the occasion, asking the winner who he was thinking of as he pointed to the sky.
“My grandfather, of course,” came the reply, before emotion took over and tears started to stream down Van der Poel’s face.
Poulidor, who died on 19 November 2019, was known as “The Eternal Second” after finishing on the Tour podium eight times without ever wearing the famous maillot jaune. On his own second day in the Tour, his grandson achieved where he failed – not that the illustrious career of “PouPou” could ever realistically be seen as a failure.
What was both an historic and emotional day on the Tour came as race organisers announced their intention to track down the spectator who caused Saturday’s pile-up for the purpose of “suing this woman who behaved so badly”. It is thought that it is only in making an example of “the tiny minority” of negligent fans that “the show won’t be spoiled for everyone”. Or so said the Tour deputy director, Pierre-Yves Thouault.
Thanks to Mathieu van der Poel and his wonderful victory, the grand depart in Brittany should ultimately be remembered by a youngster sending a message to his late grandfather for all the right reasons – and not the spectator attempting to reach out to her own with millennial narcissism and an ill-placed cardboard cut-out.
And yet, talk of legal action is perhaps a little hasty. She will be feeling bad enough as it is without the huge pile-on directed towards her from all quarters after bringing the Tour to a standstill as the world watched on in disbelief. What she did was idiotic, dangerous and disrespectful – but mistakes are made by all. The man she sent tumbling – Tony Martin – knows this all too well, having himself been booted off the Tour for a nasty altercation with Luke Rowe two years ago...
Let’s hope that Van der Poels’s yellow jersey and stirring victory in memory of his grandfather helps us draw a line under a terrible incident from which the Tour much learn – but also from which it must now move on. Forget Opi and Omi – Allez PouPou!
'I have no words' - Van Der Poel in tears after epic Stage 2 win
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