The Minderbroedersstraat or the N453 just outside Oudenaarde. A great job, as the Belgians call it. A street where you have the feeling of being in the ‘middle of nowhere’ for 364 days. For Mathieu van der Poel, it has become his boulevard of glory over the past 2.5 years with a first, second and again first place in ‘Vlaanderens Mooiste’.
For three editions of the Tour of Flanders in a row, Van der Poel has played a wonderful board game on this finish. He flirts with the distance to the finish. Since 2020, he successively started his sprint at 180, 190 and this time at 230 meters from the finish. A poker game in which his opponent Tadej Pogacar this time plays too high a game and Van der Poel knows with nerves of steel that he has to make a slightly longer sprint than in previous years.
On this first Sunday of April, the difference between Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogacar is made in the experience in sprinting. The perfect moment of impulse from the Dutchman versus the misjudgment of the Slovenian prodigy. The pressure that the pursuers Dylan van Baarle and Valentin Madouas know how to put ultimately gives ‘MVDP’ the key to victory.
For the third consecutive time, Van der Poel dares to start the sprint à deux of the Tour of Flanders from the front. He was fastest against Wout van Aert in a blistering millimeter sprint. Twelve months ago in the sprint with Kasper Asgreen, his legs soured completely at fifty meters from the line. And in the battle with Pogacar, his guts to take the lead proves to be the winning factor.
From that leading position, continuously looking back at Pogacar, he sees perfectly in the distance how fast the two pursuers are approaching. He therefore knows that the cat-and-mouse game with half a sur-place should not last too long. The two-time Tour winner, on the other hand, has his focus on the rear wheel of the Alpecin-Fenix leader. He only glances back twice, making it more difficult to estimate the speed of Van Baarle and Madouas. Where Van der Poel starts his sprint just in time, Pogacar is a fraction of a second late and he is surprised and closed in by the quickly returning two.
The final of the 106e edition of the Tour of Flanders is such a beautiful spectacle that top favorite Wout van Aert is actually not even missed. The two most attractive riders of this generation steal the show with a beautiful power play. Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogacar are two playful birds who dare to cycle with bravado and who prefer to have fun on the bike. As a result, they often open the attack at more than fifty kilometers from the finish. For example, Pogacar won the Strade Bianche in March after a solo of exactly 50 kilometers, while Van der Poel took care of the selection last Wednesday in Dwars door Vlaanderen at 70 kilometers from the finish on Berg ten Houte.
Of the 2022 Tour of Flanders, Pogacar’s action during the second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont at 54 kilometers from the finish will certainly have a place in the history of the Ronde heroic. Seated in the saddle, both hands on the handlebars, the Slovenian accelerates from the belly of the first pack and docks on the cobblestones past everyone to the front, then performs a massive forcing.
Nine kilometers further on the Koppenberg, ‘Pogi’ makes the decisive move to which only Van der Poel and the surprising Madouas have an answer. And during the last round, Van der Poel is the only rider who can still stay in the wheel of the best cyclist of the moment. Although he has a hard time keeping the wheel of the two-time Tour winner on both the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg. “Certainly on the Paterberg I was close to the point that I would be released”, Van der Poel is honest later on.
After his ‘stupid’ sprint past the finish, Pogacar walks away very disappointed. He is not angry with anyone, but he is frustrated with his own performance. Although he is later so sporty to call Van der Poel a deserved winner.
Especially when you look back at the run-up of ‘MVDP’ to this spring, the contemporary ruler of High Mass also deserves all the respect. At the end of December, he still suffered so much from his back injury, sustained during the Olympic mountain bike race, that he had to stop the cyclo-cross in Heusden-Zolder. His team remains icy calm at that moment. Even when it later becomes clear that the rehabilitation will take much longer than previously thought. Imperturbably, the plan is adjusted and the brothers Christoph and Philip Roodhooft understand that this injury can only heal with a long rest period. Do not force things hastily, become impatient and return to competition too quickly. But wisely and calmly let the rest and time do its work.
This approach is rewarded in ‘Vlaanderens Mooiste’. In addition to Van der Poel and his team Alpecin-Fenix, cycling can call itself the big winner of this Tour of Flanders. With Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogacar, two champions with guts and bravado, as the absolute trendsetter, cycling has once again conquered many hearts.