For the final instalment of my review of the cycling highlights of 2021 there were many great races and riders to choose from.
There was Lizzie Deignan’s brilliant solo win at the first ever women’s Paris-Roubaix, attacking on the first cobbled section before the TV cameras were even turned on, and finishing with blood visible on her hands from the cobbles at the famous Roubaix Velodrome.
Then there was the imperious Wout Van Aert, becoming only the second rider to win a time trial, a sprint stage and a mountains stage after the great Bernard Hinault in 1979, and that sprint stage was none other than on the Champs.
Also on the short list was the GoFundMe page started by Dutch cyclist Cem Tanyeri, with the intention of generating prize money at the Strade Bianche for the top five finishers. “The women’s peloton has ridden more than enough kilometres without a fair prize money compensation,” he said.
€2,256 prize was on offer for the women’s race and a €16,000 prize for the men. In the end the GoFundMe page raised €26,000 to be shared amongst the top 5, a brilliant effort and a slap in the face to the organisers.
(I could have considered Cavendish too, but I raced with him and he was an absolute (insert any expletive here) so I didn’t! You can read about that here and watch my Youtube video explaining more too (skip to 3:16).)
Yet in the end it was a coin flip between choosing to highlight a rider, or a stage in the Tour de France – which was won by the rider in question.
Ultimately I decided to go for the stage and the rider, because it summed up both this rider’s amazing ability and tenacity in a moment of explosive, almost violent beauty, and all that is wonderful about our sport at the exact same time. And yeah, it needed this rider to do what he does best – amaze us.
You’ve probably guessed what stage it was and who is the main character.
Yes, it’s Stage 2 of the 2021 Tour de France and the rider is the monumental Dutchman Mathieu Van der Poel, also known as VDP.
Van der Poel had been slated as one of if not the favourite to take the win on Stage 1 but was thwarted by a feisty Julian Alaphillipe, riding resplendently in his World Champion jersey. At the end of that stage VDP was clearly unhappy to have missed the opportunity to take the race lead and the Yellow Jersey, but there as more to it than that.
He and his Aplecin-Fenix teammates were not wearing their usual blue jerseys, having instead chosen to wear the purple and yellow colours of his maternal grandfather, the French great Raymond Poulidor. Nicknamed ‘Pou-Pou’, Poulidor’s career (1960-1977) unfortunately coincided with the careers of two of the greats of the sport, the Frenchman Jacques Anquetil and the Belgian Eddy Merckx. Poulidor died in 2019, leaving his grandson distraught.
Whereas Anquetil and Merckx won 5 Tours each, Pou-Pou was second three times and 3rd another three times, earning him another nickname the ‘Eternal Second’. He also never had even one day in the coveted Yellow Jersey.
For the Alpecin-Fenix team to choose to ride in his grandfather’s colours was as sign of the high esteem in which VDP holds his grandfather’s memory, but it also brought huge pressure. Van der Poel wanted that win on Stage 1, knowing that it was likely his best chance to honour his grandfather with Yellow. However with Alaphillipe empowered in Yellow and the French crowds willing him on, it would be a mighty task to not only win but also to dislodge him from the lead, as the World Champ had an 8 second lead over the Dutchman.
Stage 2 was a 183km route that was mostly flat but featured two final rides up the Mur de Bretagne, a 2km hill with a first kilometre of 10% that evens out in the final km to 4%. Did it suit VDP? Yes, but it also suited Wout Van Aert and the race leader and a host of others.
On the first time up the climb that the race sparked into life. Van der Poel accelerated clear of the peloton and all watching expected him to breab free, but he failed to carve out a significant gap and was pursued by the race leader, Julian Alaphilippe, as he reached the summit.
“The first time I attacked to try to get the time bonuses, because I knew it was the only way to get the yellow jersey,” he said later.
With the 2nd and final approach of the Mur approaching, those watching questioned whether VDP might be too tired to win, that perhaps weight of expectancy was weighing too heavy upon his shoulder.
Van Der Poel however had no such qualms. Sonny Colbrelli of Bahrain Victorious attacked on the steepest section and VDP followed. Then the Dutchman took his foot of the gas slightly and looked over his shoulder. He saw a small gap to the bunch and in a moment that encapsulated the brutality and beauty of bike racing in a single instant, he went. He just went. He stood up for 20 meters then sat back in the saddle and rode for his life, for the win, for Yellow – for his grandfather.
All the way to the line as he forced the pedals over the chasers behind desperately trying to reel him in, but to no avail. There was no two hands in the air victory salute as he wanted every second he could gain. Instead he took one hand off the bar and raised his index finger to the heavens, leaving no doubt that this one was for Pou-Pou, the Eternal Second.
“Who were you thinking of when you crossed the line?” the interviewer asked.
Van der Poel paused to gather himself, and then, choking back tears said:
“My grandad of course.”
“I’m quite speechless that it worked out. You can dream of a scenario like this, but to make it work is quite unbelievable. Sometimes my team believes in me more than I do myself.”
Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) summed up the feelings of the peloton when he was asked what he thought about VDP’s sensational win.
“Am I surprised by Van der Poel? Not really!”
Van der Poel wore the Yellow Jersey for 6 days before retiring from the race to focus on the Olympics.
“I’m really happy with my Tour and it’s a success already,” he said. I’ve won a stage and worn the yellow jersey a lot longer than expected.”
And that, by the way, was his first ever Tour.