In the most shocking finish at a northern classic in ages, Corendon’s Mathieu van der Poel came from nearly a minute behind race leaders Jakob Fuglsang and Julian Alaphilippe with three kilometers remaining, only to regroup in the final 300 meters as the race leaders played cat-and-mouse, and then punishing them for their tactics with a powerful sprint to the line that sent the home crowd into complete delirium. Van der Poel and his small group came into sight of the leaders just as Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski had joined the Fuglsang-Alaphilippe break, which moments earlier seemed absolutely assured of victory. But two became three, and with everyone on his wheel at the 600 meter sign van der Poel simply pounded the pedals to close on the leaders, disregarding the group glued to his wheel, and powered his way to the line for the win, before crumpling to the ground in tearful disbelief.
If I were into religious metaphors, I might say that van der Poel had shown great upstart leadership, distancing himself from the peloton amidst the hills of Limburg, only to be crucified for his risk-taking, seeing the race run away from him in the hands of more entrenched and powerful forces. But before you could bury him, he rose from the dead and ascended to the top of the podium, in a scene that could reverberate across the cycling landscape for a long, long time.
Easter metaphors aside, though (and a Happy Easter to all of you celebrating today), van der Poel’s day really did seem over after he took off with only Gorka Izagirre on a climb inside 40km to go. Izagirre’s lack of assistance meant it was the Dutch kid against the rest of the elite peloton, too tall a task even for a rider of van der Poel’s talent. They were not only reeled in by the next climb but put out of their tactical misery by a Deceuninck Quick Step counter-move powered by Dries Devenyns that left Alaphilippe alone with Fuglsang on the loose with 30km to go. Eventually Kwiatkowski and Matteo Trentin formed a two man chase, often dangling just out of sight of the leaders, with the peloton slipping backward and devolving into messy attacks.
By the race’s final chapter, Max Schachmann was alone riding for fifth place and Trentin was desperately clinging to Kwiatkowski. At 1.5km Kwiato was alone while Schachmann caught Trentin and reshuffled the deck for the last podium spot. But the mini-peloton was now only 24 seconds behind and a threat. Up front, Fuglsang had put a couple attacks into Alaphilippe, anticipating the Frenchman’s superior sprint in a two-up finish, and as the pair headed into the final corner they were looking at each other and adjusting their shoes for a sprint, either ignorant of the approaching riders or just reckless to an unforgettable fault. Riders do this sort of monkeying around all the time, but it rarely costs them so dearly as it did today.
The final 600m were a long straightaway and van der Poel led the pack from behind, checking repeatedly to see if anyone else in his group was going to do anything to help. The answer was no, so the youngster took full responsibility for that final, painful closure of the gap, with EF Education First’s Simon Clark right on his wheel. Van der Poel’s final assault not only reeled in the faltering leaders but got him up to a speed that Clark could not come around. Fuglsang kicked at the end for third place, coming around Alaphilippe for the podium.
Coming over the line van der Poel was already vigorously shaking his head in disbelief. As soon as he could safely do so, he stopped and lay on the ground, surrounded by officials, media, and the screams of his countrymen. Minutes later van der Poel confirmed what we thought, that the peloton did not believe it had any chance to win, and it wouldn’t have, had van der Poel not kept on believing and powering the dozen or so riders across to the finish. A seasoned veteran might have looked around for help or saved his energy for the sprint for sixth at that point, lord knows we’ve seen that play out over and over. But not today.
Van der Poel’s win will be an immensely popular one at home. Erik Dekker was the last Dutch rider to win, in 2001, and the host nation was overdue as its latest crop of talent looked to be a bit more hopeful than the Generation Rabobank that registered little more than disappointment in the decade following Dekker’s win. But if they were to get a home winner, van der Poel was only recently considered a vague possibility, having never raced here before and generally viewed as a powerful rider for the less climby courses. His mid-week win at Brabantse Pijl, though, suggested something special was happening with him. That special form became something truly magical, a sports moment of the highest order.
Prior to van der Poel’s initial move there was the usual group up the road and the peloton stuck together, biding their time. The finale was as chaotic and fun as any we have seen in a while, before it became shocking and memorable and a cautionary tale to all who mess around in a small breakaway before the sprint. In defense of Fuglsang and Alaphilippe, however, their tactics aren’t as shoddy in hindsight as one might think. Fuglsang could be forgiven for thinking (as he clearly did, given his attempted attacks) that he wasn’t going to beat Alaphilippe on the line. But he actually did, in the sprint for third, where Ala got led into the final meters by Kwiatkowski, just the advantage he would have wanted in a three-man finish, only to lose to Fuglsang. So Ala didn’t in fact have the legs to simply sprint out a win. If he knew that, well, I suppose his messing around was understandable too.
But the closing peloton was a factor nobody could have foreseen only minutes earlier. The fact that it contained (as its engine) a young Dutchman on the form of his life, looking to deliver the greatest finish the home crowd could possibly imagine, made this a special edition of the Amstel Gold Race, unlikely to be matched for a long while.
1. VAN DER POEL Mathieu COC 220 2. CLARKE Simon EF1 132 3. FUGLSANG Jakob AST 112 4. ALAPHILIPPE Julian DQT 96 5. SCHWARZMANN Michael BOH 86 6. LAMBRECHT Bjorg LTS 76 7. DE MARCHI Alessandro CPT 66 8. MADOUAS Valentin GFC 58 9. KWIATKOWSKI Michal SKY 52 10. BARDET Romain ALM 46 11. TRENTIN Matteo MTS 40 12. MOLLEMA Bauke