After wisecracks about eating spaghetti with ketchup and pizza with pineapple, Mathieu van der Poel almost pulled off his biggest joke yet on Wednesday – a victory in a mountain stage of his debut Giro d’Italia.
Not content with a stage win and the pink jersey at the earliest point of asking back in Hungary in Stage 1, the Dutchman went on the attack yet again on Wednesday’s Stage 16 as he continued going deep into the third, and most mountainous week, of a race most people expected him to leave at the halfway point.
This is uncharted territory for Van der Poel, who has never gone beyond the first week of a Grand Tour before in his career. But if it's a voyage of discovery of sorts, then he's going about it as it were a fact-finding mission - a chance to test the limits of his body, to amass as many experiences as possible and leave his mark on the race on every twist and turn.
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Although Van der Poel insisted on the eve of the Giro that it was his intention to make it all the way to Verona, few thought the 27-year-old would not only go the distance – but be competing for the spoils in a stage featuring over three-thousand metres of vertical ascent.
That Van der Poel struck out early on the Passo del Tonale in Stage 17 – just days after he starred in the breakaway on the opening Alpine stage to Cogne – is the mark of a natural competitor willing to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in even on days which really don’t suit his characteristics of a puncheur and fast finisher.
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He attacks, it seems, quite simply because he can – and because to do otherwise would be admitting defeat. His mindset seems to be simple: what’s the point of getting to the end for the sake of simply getting to the end? He might as well have called it a day in Reggio Emilia along with Caleb Ewan, another rider targeting Tour de France stage wins later this summer.
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Ewan and Van der Poel, of course, are apples and oranges. Chuck them on the Poggio or the via Roma and the result may well be the same. But just as Van der Poel probably won’t win a bunch sprint in a Grand Tour, Ewan won’t ever get into a mountain breakaway. If, by some fluke, the Aussie pocket-rocket did just that, there’s no way he’d be riding clear on the final climb with just 15km remaining…
But that’s the exact scenario Van der Poel didn’t so much find himself in but fought tooth and nail to bring about on Wednesday.
For it was Van der Poel whose early accelerations helped launch the breakaway; Van der Poel who attacked on an uncategorised lump with 66km remaining to produce the first major shake-out in the day’s large 22-man move; Van der Poel who – despite his hefty frame and watts-per-kilo handicap – tapped out tempo on the head of a leading quartet on the penultimate Cat. 1 climb of the Passo del Vetriole; Van der Poel who, once pegged back, attacked immediately on the descent to open a gap with compatriot Gijs Leemreize; and Van der Poel who then threw down the hammer at the start of the final Cat. 1 ascent of Monterovere to distance Leemreize and send a shudder down the spine of the Giro d’Italia’s social media manager.
After all, this poor soul had only gone and promised that they would eat an Hawaiian pizza should Van der Poel add a second stage win to his name before the end of the Giro this Sunday.
It all came into being after a picture surfaced of an exhausted Van der Poel in the team bus after his mountain exertions on Sunday with a plain margherita pizza on his lap. “When they forget to put olives on your pizza again,” the Dutch journalist who posted the image included as a witty caption – only for Van der Poel to incur the wrath of an entire nation with the one-word reply: “Pineapple.”
In his quest to inflict this gastric infirmity on an Italian, most people would have expected Van der Poel to target Thursday’s rolling stage to Treviso – ideally suited to a fast finisher winning from a breakaway. That or the final 17.4km time trial in Verona – the Dutchman having already come runner-up in the race’s previous time trial back in Budapest in Stage 2.
Van der Poel had other ideas. And amazingly, he came within 11km of achieving the impossible – as the tenacious Leemreize finally clawed himself back in contention before riding clear, only to be reeled in himself by the reborn Santiago Buitrago. The Colombian picked himself up from an earlier crash and timed his chase to perfection, soaring past both Dutchmen one by one before the summit, then holding on for an emotional win just days after being reduced to tears by his second place in Cogne – the same day as VdP’s pizza faux-pas.
Once the win was out of his grasp, Van der Poel eased up a little and was ultimately caught on the home straight by the GC favourites – but not before he stuck his tongue out as if in recognition of the absurdity of the situation: being caught only just metres from the line of a mountain stage by the man in pink and his closest rival.
Since his opening day win, Van der Poel has ridden over 500km of his debut Giro in breakaways off the front of the race; he was also author of arguably the most important single moment for which this Giro will be remembered – his poignant and sporting thumbs-up after conceding an historic victory to Biniam Girmay in Stage 10.
When the Eritrean 22-year-old was forced out of the Giro following his freak injury from a Prosecco cork, the race was deprived of what was arguably its most thrilling rivalry. Van der Poel has since ridden in breakaways en route to Genova (Stage 12, where Leemreize came third) and to Cogne (Stage 15, where Buitrago came second) in his bid to keep us entertained with an ever-expanding repertoire of attacking exuberance.
If there were some familiar faces in Wednesday’s breakaway on Stage 17 then Van der Poel’s mistake on the final big descent was far from familiar – the Dutchman showing his human side with an uncharacteristic skid when put under pressure from Leemreize.
‘Woah, woah!’ – Van der Poel almost tumbles over barrier on mountain descent
For a brief moment as he then rode clear on Monterovere it seemed as if Van der Poel was going to replicate the achievement of his great rival Wout van Aert from last year’s Tour and win a key mountain stage. If the two are among the most talented all-round riders of their generation, the one thing everyone thought Van der Poel incapable of was winning a mountain stage like Van Aert did last July.
For sure, Monterovere is not exactly Mont Ventoux – but Van der Poel came extremely close to proving his doubters wrong. While the Dutchman undeniably lacks some tactical finesse and can be guilty of making too big an effort when it really doesn’t matter – his early solo attempt in the Napoli circuit stage springs to mind – he showed on the road to Lavarone that, in the right circumstances, he is capable of winning a mountain stage in a Grand Tour.
If that should make everyone in the peloton that little bit more wary of him, then the stark reality that he will still start Thursday’s 151km Stage 18 to Treviso as one of the favourites despite this latest show of brilliance underlines his incomparable stellar status among his peers.
And the best thing? Given Thursday’s late start, Van der Poel should be able to squeeze in at least a couple of post-11am cappuccinos before the riders roll out of Borgo Valsugana – just add to his ongoing litany of crimes against Italy…
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