When Mathieu Van Der Poel raced away from the peloton with 43 kilometers to go in Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race, it felt like a moment. The 24-year-old former cyclocross world champion has been the talk of the Spring Classics season. He comes from famous stock. He’s already being featured in equipment ads. He won the Dwars door Vlaanderen race earlier this month, and outsprinted Julian Alaphilippe to win the Brabantse Pijl race on Wednesday. Hell, even his missteps have portended greatness. He entered today’s race a highly rated favorite, pedaling on home soil, in the Dutch national champion’s red, white and blue jersey.
But the move ultimately went nowhere. He failed to draw out any competitors other than Gorka Izagirre, who was supporting a teammate back down the road and offered little help in staying away from the bunch. Television announcers who had been on the edge of their seat when Van Der Poel launched the attack soon wondered aloud what he was thinking, chalked his futile effort up to youthful enthusiasm. Within five kilometers, the escape was reeled back in.
A few kilometers afterward, Julian Alaphilippe launched an attack. Surely this was the one. The Frenchman has already won eight races this year, and he’s at the top of everyone’s list for all three of this week’s punchy races through the Ardennes. He was quickly joined by Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang (whom he bested at the line in March’s Strade Bianche race), and the pair held an advantage that yo-yoed from under 10 seconds to over 45 (though both later questioned the time gaps provided by Dutch broadcasters).
The move blew up the race. Michael Kwiatkowski and Matteo Trentin chased it for almost an hour. Michael Woods tried to hang with it but couldn’t. Jelle Vanendert failed to chase it down. Romain Bardet, Simon Clarke, Bauke Mollema, and Max Schachmann all found themselves in clustered groups, scattered along the road, as teams tried to figure out how to catch Alaphilippe and Fuglsang.
With three kilometers to run, it was clear it would come down to one of these two. Re-entering the Dutch city of Maastricht, which the peloton had been looping all day, the duo had a (supposed) lead of nearly 40 seconds over Kwiatkowski, who had finally dropped Trentin to strike out on his own, with Van Der Poel marshaling a small bunch of also-rans still further down the road.
The last kilometer and a half featured some of the most dramatic racing of the season so far. Alaphilippe and Fuglsang, while never resorting to too much slow-motion tomfoolery, neverthless traded attacks and counter-attacks to wear each other out. Kwiatkowski (who won this race in 2015) steadily, steadily gained. With under a kilometer to go, and a straight line to the finish, the camera showed Alaphilippe and Fuglsang winding up their sprint in the foreground, Kwiatkowski bearing down in the middle distance, and – what’s this? – the Van Der Poel group bearing down on him. In the final few hundred meters, worlds collided and Van Der Poel barged off the front of his group to overtake his predecessors and surge to the finish line, clutching his helmet and shaking his head in disbelief.
An astonishing, chaotic victory for a young star who is living up to his promise.
The Day’s Other Winners
Simon Clarke What had looked like a futile chase in the race’s last few kilometers ended up netting him second place, only half a bike’s length behind Van Der Poel
The Day’s Losers
Peter Sagan When Van Der Poel and Alaphilippe were making their attacks, the former world champion was already dropping out the back of the bunch. He failed to finish the race.
Greg Van Avermaet The Belgian excels in the spring classics, but this was the last one he’s racing this season, and the best he could manage was 14th place, 46 seconds behind the day’s winner.