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Cycling

Mathieu van der Poel’s Attack At Strade Bianche Was Cycling At Its Best

Dutch Mathieu van der Poel of Alpecin-Fenix celebrates on the podium after winning the 'Strade Bianche' one day cycling race (184km) from and to Siena, Italy, Saturday 06 March 2021. BELGA PHOTO DIRK WAEM (Photo by DIRK WAEM/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)
Photo: Dirk Waem/Getty Images

After 175 kilometers on the unforgiving white gravel roads of Tuscany this past Saturday, three riders entered Siena to contend for victory in the men’s Strade Bianche. World cyclocross champion Mathieu van der Poel broke apart a larger group of hopefuls with a monstrous attack on the final gravel section, and he found himself joined by only world road race champ Julian Alaphilippe and 2019 Tour de France king Egan Bernal. The beautiful early-season race is almost always decided on the Via Santa Caterina, a 16-percent gutpunch so unforgiving it famously stopped Wout van Aert dead in his tracks in 2018.

This year’s race played out no different. The climb through the streets proved decisive yet again, though the magnitude and source of the winning attack were equally surprising. Despite squaring up against two of the most accomplished climbers in the peloton, and despite downplaying his chances of victory in anticipation of this exact scenario, van der Poel buried his foes with one of the strongest attacks in recent memory. He didn’t even get the jump; watch as Alaphilippe looks over at him before he passes to the fore. The element of surprise was immaterial, as van der Poel dropped the hammer and put huge gaps into both climbers.

There’s a useful contrast here between van der Poel’s win and the finale of the exciting women’s race, which Chantal van den Broek-Blaak won over Elisa Longo Borghini, in large part due to teamwork and tactics. Broek-Blaak and her superior team forced Longo Borghini to do all the work and set Broek-Blaak up for the winning move. Van der Poel, meanwhile, was somehow able to marshal his victorious attack after spending most of the race’s decisive final hour pushing the pace and splintering the ever-shrinking front group with other vicious attacks. He won with sheer force of power.

Van der Poel’s aggression has earned many fans. Acclaimed Italian cyclist Vincenzo Nibali told La Gazzetta dello Sport that van der Poel and 2020 Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar rendered computers “useless.” Nibali said van der Poel’s win “was pazzesco (crazy). I switched on the television for the last 60km and I saw what Mathieu did. … Mamma mia!”

Van der Poel’s father, decorated cyclist Adrie van der Poel, also praised his son’s style. “I really appreciate Mathieu’s way of racing. What others think of that, whether he’s stupid or smart, leaves us a little cold. It is fun for the public to watch but then you have to win now and then,” he said.

Retired Belgian superstar Tom Boonen was even more succinct. “What! The! Fuuuuck! What was all that? On Saturday I sat staring at Mathieu van der Poel with my mouth open,” he wrote in Het Laatste Nieuws. “Nota bene: the most explosive rider in the world!”

Statistics are rarely interesting in cycling—they often make racing markedly less exciting—but van der Poel’s power data is a noteworthy exception. He somehow averaged 1,105 watts over a 15-second period of his attack, peaking at 1,362, which is equivalent to the power of 1.8 horses. That came after his 774-watt, 50-second attack that put van Aert and other elite rivals out of contention on the final gravel section. If Strade Bianche is to officially be thought of as a monument, which Alaphilippe believes it should, van der Poel’s attack will go down as the moment it earned its promotion.

It’s worth contextualizing van der Poel’s race-winning effort on Saturday as part of a larger corpus of aggressive swings from the Dutchman. The 26-year-old, three-time defending cyclocross world champion has more or less always raced like this. During February’s UAE Tour, his very first race back on the road after the cross season, van der Poel fractured the peloton with a searing attack and won Stage 1. He nearly took a famous long-range victory at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in late February with an audacious 83-kilometer solo bid. Right now it would be difficult to make a case for anyone else as the world’s most talented rider. The only other possible candidates—Alaphilippe, van Aert, and Pogacar—were right there alongside van der Poel. The four riders form the most exciting possible quartet for men’s cycling, as they all share a knack for the sort of aggressive, uncompromising racing that seemed to be on the way out just a few years ago.