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Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Van Der Poel

14/03/2021

Before the stage, Wout Van Aert said words to the effect of, “If I’m going to win this race, every stage is important, but this is the hardest.” Tadej Pogačar’s mantra was “Gain as much time as possible on Van Aert before the final time trial.” No one spoke to Mathieu Van Der Poel (AFC) about his GC plans, for the simple reason that yesterday’s stage left him 64th at 20’24”. But he was the powerbroker, and the way he interpreted the role today will keep cycling fans talking for years.  

Peter Sagan, by the way, 148th in GC, joked, “Really, I don’t know what I’m doing here!” He was referring to his recent bout of Covid-19, and his consequent lack of condition. But perhaps it was important he was here. After all, he won a very similar stage in 2013 – stage six, Porto Sant’Elpidio-Porto Sant’Elpidio (209 km), the second half of racing took place in heavy rain, over two circuits with repeated climbs of the demanding “muri” with gradients of 27%. They cost Chris Froome the race lead that day. He never got it back. 

If that stage is little remembered, today’s well be talked about decades from now as the expression of three fundamental principals – of life, of liberty, and the vigorous pursuit of Mathieu Van Der Poel.

It was a stage in three parts. Part one lasted 45 km, until the breakaway formed. Continuous attacks and counterattacks pushed the average up to an eye-watering 57.4 kph for the first 30 minutes. The five riders who finally stole away were Filippo Ganna, Davide Ballerini, Pello Bilbao, Robert Stannard and Jonas Rickaert. Even so, the average speed for the first hour was 55 kph. Their lead reached a maximum of 4’30” before the peloton reacted. Even so, the catch came early, with 56.5 km still to ride. 

The hilly final circuit, 23.6 km long, started at Crocetta, with 99.3 km to go. Each of the four laps held three forbidding ramps in store. Van Der Poel was already taking his first turn at the front ten kilometres before the catch. Egan Bernal was more circumspect. With 56.1 km go to, on the climb before Crucetta, he darted away, quickly joined by Higuita, Pogacar, Van der Poel and Van Aert. As the group gelled, Van Der Poel seemed to be doing the lion’s share of the work at the front. However, the stage took a bizarre turn when Van Der Poel, descending, and with an energy bar or something similar in his mouth,  opened a gap, then rode away. Astonishing. 

The other four were quickly joined by about 20 chasers. With 50 km left, Pogačar took a left hand bend too wide and shipped his chain. He need a push off by a spectator, and a chase to get back into the group. Meanwhile, Mathieu Van Der Poel’s advantage grew and grew, from 40″ with 44 km to go, and 53″ with 42 km to go, up to 2’13” with 29 km left and 3’20” with 18 km still to ride. 

At that point, he seemed assured of an extraordinary showpiece victory. 

That was before Pogačar darted out of the main chasing group. He bridged across to a trio of riders with no interest in GC – Felline, Soler and De Marchi – then set off alone, perhaps in search of nothing more than a few more seconds’ advantage over his GC rival Van Aert. In the first 3 km of his attack, he gained on 5 seconds on the Flying Dutchman. It could even have been statistical error in the satellite timing mechanism. 

Then the gap began to collapse. In the next five kilometres, he gained 13 seconds per kilometre, reducing Van Der Poel’s lead from 3’15” to 2’10”. However, then, the gap began to fall. In the next five kilometres, he gained 13 seconds per kilometre, reducing Van Der Poel’s lead from 3’15” to 2’10”. One of the most compelling pursuit races many of us have ever seen was under way. 

From 10 to 5 km to go, Pogačar made up 52 more seconds, just over 10″ per kilometre. In the next 2.5 km, it was 12″ per kilometre. 

That left a gap of 48 seconds with 2.5 km to go. He gained 20 seconds in the next 500m, which left a gap of 28 seconds 2 km to go. He gained 6 seconds over the next 500m, and 6 seconds over the 500m after that, which left a gap of 16 seconds with 1 km to go. With 500m remaining, the gap was still 13 seconds. Running on vabour, Van Der Poel had been holding something back. It was enough to win the stage by 10 seconds.

 

If, yesterday, Tadej gave us a masterclass in gap management, today, Mattieu Van Der Poel offered us the opposite. His inspired madness kept us all on the edge of our seats. Meanwhile, a few days ago, some were wondering if Wout Van Aert, third today, albeit at 49″, could win every stage here. Now Tadej Pogačar looks utterly dominant. What else is this unforgettable Tirreno Adriatico going to serve up? Whatever it is, four people are certain to be involved: Bernal, Van Aert, Van Der Poel and Tadej Pogačar.

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