The narrative around MVDP and his participation at the Tour de France has shifted quite dramatically over the past few months. As early as last December he said the Tour was ‘very inconvenient’ and once again in February, before the beginning of the road season, the Alpecin-Fenix rider stated that he would ride the Tour de France out of obligation to his sponsors, but that the Olympics would be his primary goal for the season, and his preparation for the Tour would be on the mountain bike. He went as far as to state that “I considered skipping the Tour. For me the best way to go to the Olympics in my top shape would mean skipping it but I think that the sponsors and the team want me to be there so I understand.” (CyclingNews, 2021)
Roughly translated, he would do his duty, but perhaps, arguably, his heart would not be in it. There was never any secret over his major goal for 2021 being the Olympic mountain biking in Tokyo, and if he rode the Tour, it was likely he would leave early in order to adequately prepare for the Olympics.
There followed a brief interlude in which the IOC said they would impose a mandatory two-week isolation period for all athletes competing at the Olympics, prior to the Games. This meant that no cyclist would be able to ride both the Tour de France and the Olympics. It was a bind for many, but given his earlier statements, it could perhaps be viewed as a reprieve for van der Poel, as he would not have to worry any longer about his obligations.
However, that was later revoked, and we were back to the original plan. In May, while some went to Romandie, some finished out the one-day races or competed in stage races that had been shifted due to covid restrictions, Mathieu turned his focus to mountain bike training and attended two World Cup events as part of his preparation.
Following that, he participated in the Tour de Suisse. Mathieu emerged from his short mountain biking interlude in devastating form, taking two stage wins in his inimitable style and the yellow jersey in the process.
I spoke at length in part I of this article about Mathieu’s psychological profile, which is striking in how much it appears to set him apart from other riders. Mindset plays a crucial role in all sport, yet for Mathieu van der Poel, his success seems to derive from a decision that he makes – to win or not to win?
The same could be said of many riders – it’s common for cyclists to target specific stages that suit their body type, or particular skillset, or those that take place over familiar terrain, the so-called ‘home advantage’. Yet they do not always have the physical prowess to back this up. Deciding ‘today, I’m going to win a stage’ is a luxury very few bike riders are able enjoy.
Somewhere along the line, between the relentless, grim, mud-soaked cyclocross season, where road cycling and the glamour of the Tour were a million miles away, Mathieu van der Poel changed his mind. Taking the yellow jersey in Switzerland can’t have hurt this process, giving him a taste of what he could achieve in France.
However, his intent was declared in iconic style as on the night of the team presentations, Alpecin-Fenix unveiled a special kit, purple and yellow in tribute to Mathieu’s late grandfather, beloved French cyclist Raymond Poulidor. Poulidor never wore the yellow jersey and suddenly, after the reticence, the uncertainty, the indifference, a different van der Poel emerged: one with something to prove. It was personal, now. It meant something.
It was a foregone conclusion that MVDP would at least target a stage win at the Tour; MVDP does not attend races to make up numbers. The first couple of stages in Brittany looked on paper to be perfect for his skillset: tough, undulating terrain and weather conditions that would suit a cyclocrosser better than a mountain man or rouleur.
Following news from the UCI that Alpecin were permitted to wear the jersey for stage one of the race, it was very easy to sit back and wait for the inevitable to occur. He had to win it. Surely? Fate dictated this outcome. No other would do.
Yet it wasn’t to be. Amidst a day that will be remembered largely for the horrible crashes that decimated the peloton, MVDP was able to remain in contention, but it was Julian Alaphillippe who took the win, creating a story of his own, a win for his newborn son and the first Frenchman to sport the maillot jaune after stage one for twenty years.
Another day, a second chance
Northern France is reminiscent of Belgium in many ways, and much like stage one, stage two resembled a one-day classic, albeit with less in the way of cobbles and farm tracks. The parcours was lumpy, with a double loop of the gruelling Mur-de-Bretagne, an enticing prospect for the one-day specialists among the bunch along with the green jersey hopefuls, as a sprint finish wasn’t completely out of the question.
Once again, the expectation was that the sharp end of the race would see the famed ‘big three’ of Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and Julian Alaphillippe battling for the win, with the stronger, more climb-hardened sprinters such as Sagan and Colbrelli perhaps pushing them with thoughts of green or perhaps even yellow. Yet the GC race too was already on, with Roglic and Pogacar watching one another and INEOS Grenadiers keen to remain in contention after a tricky first day.
Cycling so often delivers on a story, where other sports fall short. It’s the reason we love it and come back for more time and time again. And so, the foregone conclusion was played out, not on the first day, where chaos reigned and Alaphillippe played out his own personal narrative arc, but on day two. Back in his regular jersey, with nothing to prove and the pressure off, MVDP timed his attack to perfection. On GCN, Carlton Kirby suggested that he was done for the day after the first attack appeared to fail and the bunch closed him down.
Not so. In hindsight it all became startlingly obvious: he was playing the long game, collecting the bonus seconds, then conserving his energy, following his train, waiting. He would need a lead. Not a big one, but a lead. As the leaders passed under la flamme rouge, MVDP sat up and looked around. He took his time over it, relatively speaking. He was looking for his rivals. Most likely, he was looking for Julian Alaphillippe. Looking at the prize that resided on the back of the Frenchman. His prize.
Sonny Colbrelli tried an attack with 850m to go and Mathieu jumped on it. Then, with one final look behind, he saw Alaphillippe buried in the bunch, and he stamped on the pedals and injected the fearsome power that we have all come to recognise as practically unassailable. And so it would prove. But he left nothing to chance, punching the entire stretch of the final, never letting up despite having the stage victory in the bag. Because we all knew now, that wasn’t what he was here for.
As he crossed the line, Mathieu van der Poel pointed to the sky, and in an instant, cycling history was made. He had played it to perfection. It was not chaotic or spontaneous, as so many of his past wins have appeared, from an outside perspective. It was calculated and assured. It was a beautiful, poignant and unforgettable moment in a Tour de France that, on day two, is set up to be one of the most memorable ever.
Hopefully we will find out, once the heightened emotions have abated, just what it was that changed his mind. The #MerciPoupou jersey was a nugget of marketing genius from Alpecin-Fenix to say the least, but was it Mathieu’s idea? Did he realise the significance of this chance, or did someone suggest it to him? No matter, in the end, as he set out not just to win a stage, but to win the yellow jersey. It would not matter if he was only in it for one day; the symbolism of the act of pulling on the jersey and riding with it during the race elevated it above a mere stage win. It would be a kind of destiny; a familial passing on of the torch. A legacy.
What happens next doesn’t matter. Mathieu van der Poel is not at the Tour de France to stand on top of the podium. There’s every chance he may not even make it to Paris, as he will likely make good on his promise to give everything to his Olympic goal. This moment though, this moment will last forever.