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Mathieu says “Tomato,” Wout says “Tomato”!


There has been a great deal of discussion about what happens as you get closer and closer to the surface of a black hole, but no one had been able to see it directly until Mathieu Van Der Poel’s astonishing acceleration on the Via Santa Caterina in Siena on Saturday. Not surprisingly, then, all eyes were on the Flying Dutchman at the start in Lido di Camaiore this morning.

What, then, could his fellow conspirator and arch-rival Wout Van Aert conjure out of the ether by way of response? An interesting article that popped up on the website before today’s stage seemed to suggest he had a plan. Merijn Zeeman, sports director of Jumbo-Visma, divulged Wout Van Aert’s plan to ride this Tirreno Adriatico for the overall win. True, Greg Van Avermaet won Tirreno Adriatico in 2016, but that was only after the high mountain stage had to be cancelled due to inclement conditions. “Wout is not Pogačar or Bernal,” Zeeman observed. “They will always have an advantage. But he feels good. He wants to explore his limits and see where his limits lie.”

I am sure we all join him in that. A 7-day stage race with three stage finishes classified as uphill (in that the rule on “racing incidents in the final 3 km” does not apply), and the 22 hairpins at Prati di Tivo to look forward to on Saturday, seems to offer him the perfect opportunity. To win it, he will have to find a way past Pogačar, Alaphilippe, Bernal, Quintana, Geraint Thomas, Nibali, Almeida, Fuglsang… and, of course, Mathieu Van Der Poel.

So, with the full Kluge-Van Der Sande-De Buyst sprint train supporting Caleb Ewan, the wily Max Richeze working for Fernando Gaviria, and the Deceuninck – Quick-Step wolf pack led today by Álvaro Hodeg, Van Aert would presumably leave the bunch sprint to the specialists, and worry about the three uphill finishes that lie ahead.

Not at all. Richeze gave Gaviria the perfect lead out, but by the time Fernando Gaviria moved today, Van Aert had already come off his wheel and gone. Ewan was right on his wheel, but he simply couldn’t come past.

Talk of the disruptors is old hat now: the 19 year old team leaders, the world-beating pursuit specialists who win mountain stages, the cyclocross champions who get on a road bike and set the world alight. And just when one seems to occupy centre stage – Ganna’s 4:01.934 at the 2019 track worlds, Van Der Poel at the 2019 Amstel Gold Race, Bernal at the 2019 Tour, Evenepoel at the 2019 Clásica, Roglič at a Vuelta or two, Van Aert at the 2020 Strade Bianche, Milano Sanremo and Tour, Pogačar, also at the 2020 Tour, then Ganna at the Giro, and the WVDP/WVA duel at the Ronde… – another outdoes him with even more excessive brilliance.

Which is not quite to say that Wout’s taming of the pure sprinters today will wipe our memories clean of Mathieu’s Strade Bianche win, but, if he did so having prepared for the uphill finishes, the first of which comes in Chuisdino tomorrow, we may have another disruptive performance on our hands.

In one ear, a worldweary voice whispers, “We should be used to it by now.” In the other, a voice of wonder: “There is no getting used to this.” The real question is, have we cycling fans ever had it so good?

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