For all his superstardom and status as favorite for the opening stage, Mathieu van der Poel turned up to the Giro d’Italia almost camouflaged, decked out in the army green of Alpecin-Fenix’s special-edition kit. The Dutchman was duly hard to spot on the final climb in Visegrad, keeping himself away from the front places and biding his time before springing into view right when it mattered most.
On Saturday, he’ll stand out above all others, in the iconic pink of the leader’s jersey at the Italian Grand Tour.
For Van der Poel, the opening stage of the Giro represented another building block in a palmarès that’s still in the early phases of construction and could become one of the most towering in the sport’s pantheon.
The 27-year-old, a slow starter on the road given his beginnings in cyclo-cross, has already won nearly 40 races in what amounts to just over four full seasons, with two Tour of Flanders, Strade Bianche, and Amstel Gold Race all ticked off.
Yet even the best Classics riders need some sort of Grand Tour success to really stake a claim to all-time greatness, and Van der Poel’s win on Friday follows on from his stage success at last year’s Tour de France – his three-week debut. Whereas he missed out on the opening day of that Tour before putting things right the following day, on both occasions his wins have catapulted him into the leader’s jersey.
Tour Yellow is, of course, the most iconic of all, but Giro pink isn’t far behind. The sport is modernising and a new generation – Van der Poel among them – is doing away with established norms, but traditions still endure and donning the maglia rosa is still treated as a privilege. Van der Poel knows that. His grandfather Raymond Poulidor famously never wore the maillot jaunt at the Tour de France and Van der Poel’s extensive efforts to hang onto it in the time trial and Alps last year – knowing he’d be leaving the race early – honored the history of the jersey .
It’s for that reason that Van der Poel’s victory in Visegrad carries extra significance. It’s a second Grand Tour stage win, with two of the three boxes now ticked, but it comes with that pink hue.
True to his camp colours, this was a stealth operation from Van der Poel.
The finale in Visegrad seemed almost tailor-made for him, the 3.6km climb at 5.1% being too steep for the pure sprinters and not steep enough for the pure climbers. With Flanders already in the locker this spring after a dramatic comeback from a long injury, Van der Poel was the big favorite as the Giro set out from Budapest. And yet he wore that favorite status lightly.
Since his injury, Van der Poel’s back is back to full strength but, above and beyond that, he is a rider refreshed. Gone is the man who went on the attack from anywhere and everywhere, who was perhaps impatient to do too much too soon. Ironically, the caution relating to his physical condition arguably liberated him. At Flanders, he read the race perfectly as Tadej Pogačar rode as he’d done in the past, and did exactly enough to win the race.
Van der Poel has progressed even further from a physical point of view since early April but seems to have retained that ice-cool racing style. He couldn’t have timed his effort better on Friday.
He was without teammates and down in around 15th place with two kilometers to go. Soon, Biniam Girmay, a key rival, was all the way up in third wheel. Inside the final kilometer, Caleb Ewan, the biggest sprinting threat, found himself to the fore and even on the front, forced to back off and hope someone would come through.
By this point, Van der Poel had latched himself onto Girmay’s wheel and it proved to be a good choice. He’d be forgiven for panicking when Wilco Kelderman breezed past his left shoulder with 450 meters to go. Other riders may well have leapt out and been drawn into opening up too soon. But Van der Poel stayed cool and followed Girmay’s wheel, knowing the final 400 meters are longer than they seem on finishes like this.
He bludgeoned the pedals and, with Ewan starting to fade, went hammer and tongs with Girmay as it became a two-horse race. He had to produce an almighty launch to start to draw up alongside the Eritrean, and a painstaking effort to claw his wheel in front. He did so only in the final 50 metres and the toll it took was evident in the lack of victory salute. But one thing’s for sure; the significance of this victory won’t be lost on Mathieu Van der Poel.