I didn’t really need to wait for the hilly Ardennes races to finish in order to say that Mathieu Van der Poel’s victory in the Amstel Gold was the most exciting element of this spring classics’ season. Of course, I did wait, just in case, but as much as I enjoyed seeing the affable Jacob Fuglsang win Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and win it well, all it did was to leave me wondering what might have happened had Van der Poel’s Corendon-Circus team been invited to the race. The enormity of Van der Poel’s lush win in the Amstel one week earlier, as well as his domineering performances throughout March and April, ensured that no matter who won in the Ardennes, they would only do so in the absence of the most exciting, emerging all-round talent in years. Van der Poel proved he could win on the cobbles of Flanders, and on the Brabant hills too, so why not in the hilliest classic of them all, La Doyenne?
It was an image on TV I’ll not forget in a hurry: a long line of cyclists weaving manically along the finish-straight in Berg-en-Terblijt, their rapid conga-like progress led by a tall, lanky kid, his energy and obsession for the job so evident as he bore down on his prey, a trio of escapers who’d seemed assured of winning the Amstel Gold Race just seconds before. Like an evil serpent lining up for his kill, his mouth wide-open as if to swallow them whole, the blond-haired kid first caught Jacob Fuglsang before switching across the road to nail his last victims, Michal Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe. Rising out of the saddle with a final surge of power, panache and determination that stifled any late attempt at passing him, Van der Poel sprinted to the greatest win of his burgeoning career. The Dutch spectators went mad at this first Amstel victory in eighteen years. The whole cycling world stood up as one to acclaim its newest phenomenon.
It’s is not often a 24-year-old rookie on a second-level team attains absolute race-favourite status for a Classic – and then lives up to the hype by winning it! And it’s absolutely not often that some of the greatest names in cycling, as well as the winner’s defeated rivals, have the collective will to acknowledge the arrival of a most extraordinary talent in their midst. When the likes of Eddy Merckx, Chris Froome, Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen sing your praises, you’re in a very special place – but then that was a very special performance. And, instead of bemoaning their luck at this last-seconds’ loss, all three defeated men happily sang the praises of their young conqueror. To under-write Van der Poel’s achievement further, when was the last time a sub-prime team like Corendon-Circus beat all its World Tour opposition so sensationally? Van der Poel had defeated the very best of his in-form rivals that day, a fact re-enforced by the victories of both Alaphilippe and Fuglsang in the Ardennes – in Mathieu’s absence, of course.
By winning the modest G.P Denain in a late solo-attack, and then winning the Dwars door Vlaanderen in a sprint, Van der Poel had already put his world on notice of great things to come by the time he lined up for the Tour of Flanders on April 7th. Not ultimately the winner, but perhaps the moral winner after two crashes and two long, lonely chases ended with an admirable 4th place finish in Oudenaarde, Van der Poel switched his skills to the short climbs south of Brussels and won Fleche Brabançonne on April 12th, beating no less than Alaphilippe in the sprint. And then came that Amstel gem, with an un-assisted, group chase from one-minute back to bring the fugitives within sight before putting them to the sword so spectacularly. In almost one month’s racing, Van der Poel had shown so many different skills in his repertoire – courage, consistency and endurance above all – that few can doubt his future. It was as if he’d stretched every element of his habitual one-hour cyclo-cross workload to something six times longer. With no loss of quality.
Is it safe or even fair to shout Van der Poel’s name so loudly? By doing so, aren’t people like me inviting bad-luck or ill-form to strike the Dutchman? Or merely adding to the pressure that could see such a youngster falter with the weight of so much expectation on his shoulders? The answer is of course, yes. But I think Van der Poel has not only shown his energy and talent so dramatically, he’s also demonstrated to the watching world that he has already learnt to deal with the pressure of winning. He obviously lives off the prospect of victory and positively thrives in his new-found habitat that is the World Tour peloton. All that’s missing is his transfer to a top World Tour team, surely a mere technicality? Before writing this blog, I did consider how many times in the past we’d seen a rookie break out the way Van der Poel has. That’s when I realised how rare such moments have been – I couldn’t come up with one single name to match what Van der Poel has done this past month. Hills, cobbles, wind, crashes or punctures – Van der Poel has shown he’s ready to deal with it all.
I saw an awful lot in my “almost” 40 years of photographing the Classics. I recall neo-pro Tom Boonen making quite an impact in 2002, but even he had to wait one year before transferring that burst of early talent into winning ways, and a lot of that success was down to him being a member of the Quick-Step mob. It took another one-day great, Fabian Cancellara, about five years before he won his first Classic – but again, it was a phenomenally strong team, CSC, that aided Cancellara’s rise to the top. Ireland’s Sean Kelly, one of the sport’s greatest-ever Classics riders, needed over six years to win a Classic (in 1983) because he wasn’t on a ‘big’ team. Almost every one-day Classics specialist of the past four decades has emerged successful over a period of time, usually between one and six years from their first season as a ‘pro. Some, like Belgium’s Alfons de Wolf and Edwig Van Hooydonck, saw their careers peter out after bright beginnings. Van der Poel, coming forth like a bolt out of the blue, has a small team around him, but he’s already done enough in the world of cyclo-cross to command huge recognition on the road. It helps that he comes from a cycling family with serious heritage.
How many times in the last month have I watched Van der Poel on my TV in New Zealand and gasped at his audacious style of racing. He seems frightened of nothing – not his rivals, not the cobbles, nor the hills - not even the race distances. Indeed, he seems to want to attack from at least 50-kilometres out and then try again if that first attack hasn’t worked. In his constant chasing during the Tour of Flanders, after a series of spills and ill-fortune, Van der Poel asked no help from no-one, and still got back into contention. What a pity race-winner Alberto Bettiol had already gone away on the Oude Kwaremont before Van der Poel had actually made contact. His prolonged chase in the Amstel was even more inspiring, for by then his reputation forbade anyone to help him, yet he still got the job done. I’m convinced I’ve only ever seen two, possibly three young men similar in talent during my time as a cycling photographer. One of those was the late-Frank Vandenbroucke, a massively talented individual who found more success in stage-races than in the one-day Classics, but who thrilled everyone all the same. Another is Bernard Hinault, about whom there is little to add, other than he is a multiple Classics’ winner, World Champion, and winner of no less than nine grand tours. Alberto Contador is the third comparison, a man like Hinault who needs little introduction.
It’s not just Hinault’s tenacity that Van der Poel seems to have acquired, it’s also the way he races from the front, shouldering the wind, bossing his colleagues, dictating how and when the racing will be played out. The Vandenbroucke in Van der Poel is highlighted by a balletic style of pedalling and the ease with which his tall body sends the power down to his pedals. Like the super-thin (and equally blond) Vandenbroucke once did, VdP uses every inch of his upper body to lever the maximum power out of himself, habitually arching his long back like a cat about to pounce. Contador simply danced on his pedals, using his upper-body as a counter-weight to gain momentum. Contador only knew one way of winning a bike race, which was to attack, attack, and attack until all his foes had been despatched. If you can imagine a cyclist who possesses the best traits of Hinault, Vandenbroucke and Contador, you’ll see why I rate Van der Poel so highly. He himself might suggest Philippe Gilbert as his ideal role model, but I believe Van der Poel will need a few more years to be as clever and astute as Gilbert has been.
I do not think for one moment that Van derPoel’s skills will be restricted to just the one-day classics – his legend has a much longer, larger, richer path to follow, and my comparisons with two of the greatest stage racers of all time was not made without serious thought. But time is of the utmost importance if this 24-year-old is to achieve his obvious potential. Out with cyclo-cross, stow away the mountain-bike, and take aim him at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics - in the mens road race - that’s what Van der Poel should do, what his father Adri might try and persuade him to do, what the KNWU (the Dutch Cycling Federation) and NOC*NSF (Dutch Olympic Committee) will be hoping he does do. Mathieu might just get away with competing in the MTB in Tokyo before continuing his emergence on the road. But I hope Mathieu doesn’t repeat the mistake of Peter Sagan in 2016, when the Slovakian opted to race the MTB event in Rio de Janeiro instead of the road, only to fail in the off-road event and belatedly realise how suited he’d have been for the road course.
I used to really enjoy myself photographing Adri Van der Poel, in the 1980’s. Unfortunately for Adri, he raced in a highly competitive decade that saw him in constant battle with the likes of Sean Kelly, Bernard Hinault, Phil Anderson, Giuseppe Saronni, Jan Raas, Greg Lemond, Johan Museeuw, Eddy Planckaert, Eric Vanderaerden, Stephen Roche and many, many more. Van der Poel senior still won big - in the Classics, stages of the Tour de France, and just about everything there was to win in cyclo-cross – but his son should win more because, just in case it hasn’t been noticed, Mathieu has entered the top-level road scene when the doorways to success are wide open. Long gone are the Boonens and Cancellaras of the cobbled classics, and soon to go – well, almost – is the dominance of Paris-Roubaix winner Philippe Gilbert and the evergreen Alejandro Valverde. Even Peter Sagan looks vulnerable these days - a new Classics king awaits! And if Van der Poel junior aims for the grand tours as well, he’ll find Froome, Nibali, Thomas and even Quintana are about to give way to the next generation. Newcomers are already there – think Primoz Roglic, Tom Dumoulin, Simon and Adam Yates, and maybe Egan Bernal too - but there’s a mighty opportunity awaiting Van der Poel if he can be persuaded to jettison his love-affair with fat or knobbly tyres and take the silken road to glory, fame and fortune.