‘I can’t win every race’ – Mathieu van der Poel meets his match at Gent-Wevelgem

WEVELGEM BELGIUM MARCH 24 LR Mathieu van der Poel of The Netherlands and Team Alpecin Deceuninck Mads Pedersen of Denmark and Team Lidl Trek and Laurence Pithie of New Zealand and Team Groupama FDJ compete in the breakaway passing through the Plugstreets during the 86th GentWevelgem in Flanders Fields 2024 Mens Elite a 2531km one day race from Ieper to Wevelgem UCIWT on March 24 2024 in Wevelgem Belgium Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) sets the pace in the breakaway with Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek) and Laurence Pithie (Groupama FDJ) (Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Mathieu van der Poel wasn’t exactly overselling the significance of Gent-Wevelgem when he rolled into the mixed zone in the Grote Markt in Ypres on Sunday morning. “It’s not super important,” the man of the moment conceded, mindful that the success or failure of his Spring campaign is tallied purely in Monument wins.

Still, Van der Poel rarely, if ever, turns up at a race simply to ride around, and after cruising to E3 Saxo Classic victory on Friday, he was the overwhelming favourite to annex another Classic here. “I mean, I will not win every race there is on the calendar,” Van der Poel protested before he made his way to the start line.

So it proved, though Van der Poel, inevitably, was in the mix right up until the final metres of another breathless edition of Gent-Wevelgem. He had to yield to Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek) in the two-up sprint on Vanackerestraat, but only after his aggression on the first ascent of the Kemmelberg and the Plugstreets had changed the entire tenor of the race.

The flat finale to Gent-Wevelgem traditionally gives the sprinters a fighting chance of victory, and the key question before the race was whether Van der Poel would opt to race on behalf of his Alpecin-Deceuninck teammate Jasper Philipsen. In his first outing of 2024, after all, Van der Poel stitched Milan-San Remo back together after the Poggio to help Philipsen to victory.

“There’s a possibility that Jasper will still be there after the last time up the Kemmel, and in that case we just have to communicate again like we did in San Remo,” Van der Poel said at the start. “But I think a lot is going to happen before then.”

Prescient words. The grim pre-race forecast of hailstones and driving wind didn’t quite materialise, but on the exposed roads near De Moeren, even the gentlest breeze can have the impact of a tornado. When the peloton split with 150km still to race, Van der Poel was inevitably one of the men driving the front group.

The Dutchman continued in the same vein on the first haul up the Kemmelberg, where only seven riders remained in front after his searing acceleration, and he kicked once again on the dirt roads of the Plugstreets. After the second climb of the Kemmel, only Pedersen and Laurence Pithie (Groupama-FDJ) remained in his company.

On the last time up the climb, however, it was Pedersen who laid down the terms of engagement. His show of force distanced Pithie, while Van der Poel conceded afterwards that he was content simply to hold Pedersen’s wheel as the gradient stiffened near the summit.

“I was struggling a bit,” Van der Poel told reporters after the podium ceremony. “My legs were pretty tired already after second time up the Kemmel. I just tried to be there and on the last time up the Kemmel, I was also really struggling to hold the wheel of Mads. He was really strong there, so I knew it was going to be difficult in the sprint.”

By then, Van der Poel was already committed to trying to win the race for himself. With his teammate Philipsen and the chasing peloton still a minute or so behind, Van der Poel and Pedersen found common cause at the head of the race. They swapped turns smoothly until the final kilometre, when Van der Poel locked onto Pedersen’s wheel in the hope of encouraging him to blink first in their duel.

WEVELGEM BELGIUM MARCH 24 LR Mads Pedersen of Denmark and Team Lidl Trek and Mathieu van der Poel of The Netherlands and Team Alpecin Deceuninck compete in the breakaway during the 86th GentWevelgem in Flanders Fields 2024 Mens Elite a 2531km one day race from Ieper to Wevelgem UCIWT on March 24 2024 in Wevelgem Belgium Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

Mads Pedersen of Lidl-Trek and Mathieu van der Poel of Alpecin-Deceuninck rode together for 30km and had a drag race to the finish (Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

There was little chance of that. Pedersen kept the pace high enough to hold off the bunch and he simply had too much for Van der Poel in the two-up sprint that followed. Van der Poel tried to match Pedersen’s initial burst before sitting heavily into the saddle in a concession of defeat. After the podium ceremony, he gently dismissed the idea that he should have waited for Philipsen, who was ultimately beaten to third place by Jordi Meeus (Bora-Hansgrohe).

“You have to decide at some point. You never know how tired Mads really is. And in a situation like this, when you’re the world champion, you have to ride, I think,” Van der Poel said. “And Jasper didn’t win the sprint behind, either. It's always easy to say afterwards, but I had to try in this situation.”

Van der Poel was in a league of his own in Harelbeke on Friday, but he acknowledged that he was still paying for that effort 48 hours later. 

“The race on Friday was quite exhausting for me,” he said. “But Mads also raced at E3, so that’s not an excuse. I would have liked to have won, of course, but when there’s somebody stronger than you, it’s not too hard to accept.”

Even though Van der Poel’s defeat here will provide some succour to his rivals, he remains the obvious favourite for the Tour of Flanders next Sunday and for Paris-Roubaix the following week. His old sparring partner Wout van Aert (Visma-Lease A Bike), an absentee here, will race at Dwars door Vlaanderen in midweek, but Van der Poel will not line out again until the Ronde.

“I need a few recovery days, I really suffered,” Van der Poel said. “But I think in general I can be really happy with today as well again. I don’t think I can win every race. It seems easy sometimes, but it’s always difficult.”

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