The weekly spin: Deconstructing Mathieu van der Poel’s improbable Amstel Gold victory

by Neal Rogers


It was one of the most thrilling finishes of a spring classic in modern history. After trailing by one minute with three kilometers remaining, cyclocross world champion Mathieu van der Poel, in his Amstel Gold Race debut, towed a chase group back into contention and improbably caught and passed the leaders with 125 meters remaining. Though there had been riders on his wheel, no one could come around him.

Upon crossing the line, the Corendon-Circus rider put a hand on to his helmet and shook his head in disbelief before he came to a stop in front of a gaggle of journalists and collapsed to the ground in a state of ecstasy and exhaustion.

Eurosport commentators Matt Stephens and Rob Hatch vacillated between astonishment and speechlessness. “He was out of it. He was finished. He was done. It was never supposed to happen,” Hatch said. “That was one of most incredible wins you are ever likely to see in the history of professional cycling.”

“Stunning,” Stephens said. “I have never seen a finish like it in my life. I’m lost for words.”

Even van der Poel, a rider who has been winning with great regularity since he was a teenager — a rider who won in his debut appearances at Dwars door Vlaanderen and Brabantse Pijl in the weeks before Amstel Gold Race — was in a state of shock.

“I can’t believe it.” Those were van der Poel’s first words after crossing the line. “I went full gas, and hoped the leaders would start to look at each other. It’s unbelievable.”

Moments earlier, Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe of Deceuninck-Quick Step, winner of eight races this season including Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo, had looked poised for victory, almost certain to out-sprint his breakaway companion, Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang.

Instead, with EF’s Simon Clarke on his wheel, a hard-charging van der Poel caught and passed Alaphilippe and Fuglsang and held off what was left of his chase group to take the biggest road victory of his career. Clarke finished second, while Fuglsang rounded out the podium. Alaphilippe, who moments earlier seemed assured to win, finished fourth — out of the flowers.

But how? How did it happen?

In the days that have passed, there have been theories and allegations about incorrect time gaps, improper drafting of caravan vehicles, and curiously superhuman efforts.

The reality, however, is different. What took place in the final 10km of the Amstel Gold Race is a tale of over-reliance on race radios, the shuffling and reshuffling of chase groups, narrow roads, shifting wind directions, and a disastrous tactical stalemate. Van der Poel’s victory hinged on several factors, many out of his control. But the one thing that remained in his control was the persistent belief that he was the strongest man in the race.

“I didn’t believe anymore that I was racing for the win,” van der Poel said. “Only in the finishing straight did I see them all riding up ahead. I played it all or nothing, and it became everything.”

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DYNAMICS AND DRAMA

What’s clear is that the 54th Amstel Gold Race, and its winner, did not follow the script cycling fans are accustomed to.

To start, let’s focus on what we know to be true: Alaphilippe was suffering from leg cramps. Fuglsang sat on Alaphilippe’s wheel for the final few kilometers, much of it into a headwind. Various chasing groups behind them — Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) and Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), a soloing Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), and Clarke and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) — were all over the road, and created confusion.

And in a bid to hold off a hard-charging van der Poel, Alaphilippe started what was left of his sprint too early.

The Amstel Gold Race, the biggest event in the Netherlands, is unique among the spring classics. Though there are no long climbs, the undulating course, originally designed in the 1960s to connect the Amstel breweries of the Limburg region, delivers nearly 3,500m (11, 500 feet) of elevation gain across 35 short, sometimes steep climbs. At 266km, the Amstel Gold Race carries the distance, if not the distinction, of pro cycling’s Monument Classics.

Much of the race takes place on roads so narrow that they resemble bike paths, with more twists and turns and road furniture per kilometer than any major event on the calendar. Oftentimes the battle to get into position before a climb is as demanding as the climb itself, particularly when the southern winds are blowing. This year’s edition was unseasonably warm, with temperatures reaching 24°C (75°F) — not quite hot, but a shock to the system for some.

The last time there was a Dutch winner at Amstel Gold Race, Mathieu van der Poel was six years old. His father, Adrie van der Poel, also a former world cyclocross champion, won the race in 1990, four years before Mathieu was born, by surprising two breakaway riders at the line. It’s a race with special meaning to his family, and so back in December, when formulating his spring classics campaign, the young phenom chose to compete at Amstel Gold, rather than Paris-Roubaix; it was that important to him to leave an impression on home soil in the Dutch national champion’s jersey.

“I don’t know how many times I’ll be able to have this opportunity in my career,” he’d said, though after Sunday’s performance, it seems as though he’ll likely have several more chances.

Van der Poel emerged as the winner, but truth be told, he had not ridden a perfect race — far from it.

One of the big pre-race favorites, particularly after winning Brabantse Pijl ahead of Alaphilippe and Tim Wellens on Wednesday, van der Poel got antsy and attacked on the Gulperberg climb with 45km remaining. Astana’s Gorka Izagirre marked the move but refused to work with the Dutchman, and instead, they dangled a few seconds off the front for about six kilometers.

“I hoped I could break open the race before the Kruisberg,” van der Poel said. “I knew it was a crucial point. I wanted to make sure I got over it at the front. I got away with [Izagirre] but he wouldn’t work.”

Van der Poel went on the attack on the Gulperberg climb with 45km remaining, but Astana’s Gorka Izagirre marked the move.

When the race reached the next climb, the Kruisberg, van der Poel was in no position to follow an attack from Dries Devenyns, with Alaphilippe on his wheel; that move drew out Fuglsang and Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott). As Alaphilippe rode clear on the Eyserbosweg with 36km remaining and only Fuglsang could follow, what looked to be the winning selection had been made; the same pair that battled for victory at Strade Bianche on March 9.

Trentin dropped back and linked up with 2015 Amstel Gold winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) and Mike Woods (EF Education First). Van der Poel was further back, and as the kilometers ticked by and there was no real organized chase, the Dutch phenom looked to be out of contention.

Woods was soon dropped by Kwiatkowski, and drifted back to take up the work at the front to set up Alberto Bettiol and Simon Clarke. However, that chase group had danger men sitting on, including Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck-Quick Step), Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott), and Dylan van Baarle (Team Sky).

Up ahead, the dynamics and drama from Strade Bianche resurfaced between the two leaders.

Though it’s a shorter race, with an uphill finish, there was no question who was the faster finisher at Piazza del Campo in Siena. On the steep ramps of the Via Santa Caterina climb, Alaphilippe jumped away to finish alone. After the race, Fuglsang complained that Alaphilippe did not contribute equally to their breakaway. Two weeks later, Alaphilippe proved to be the fastest finisher from a group of 11 at Milan-San Remo. His finishing speed was never a question.

After they went clear Sunday, Fuglsang reminded Alaphilippe of how things had transpired in Tuscany. “I told him when we went that he had to pull,” Fuglsang said. “And that this time I should win instead of him.”

Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step) were clear on the Keutenberg with around 30km remaining.

The gap to Kwiatkowski and Trentin stabilized at around 20 seconds, with the van der Poel group of about 25 riders another 30 seconds back, and as the race progressed, Gilbert was unable to contain the action from his group. On the final ascent of the Cauberg with 15km to go, Schachmann jumped away, trailed by Clarke and Bauke Mollema. Deceuninck’s team tactic was over; it would all hinge on Alaphilippe.

Up ahead, the mind games began. Fuglsang knew he had to either get rid of Alaphilippe or sit on and force the Frenchman to take him to the line. Ditch him, or let him wither in the wind.

On the final climb, the Bemelerberg, with about seven kilometers remaining, Fuglsang attacked to no avail. Alaphilippe was forced to dig deep, but he stuck to the Dane’s wheel. Behind, cameras showed van der Poel working his way up through the other riders.

With 6km remaining, Eurosport’s Matt Stephens and Rob Hatch commented that things “hadn’t quite worked out” for Van der Poel on the day, though he was poised for a ”solid” top-10 finish; instead it was very much looking like a race for third place between Kwiatkowski, Trentin, Schachmann, Mollema, and Clarke. And, at the moment, all of that was accurate and correct.

With 5km to go, the race director’s car pulled up alongside Alaphilippe and Fuglsang; assuming the information they were providing the riders was based on the same GPS data displayed on the televised raced feed, their gap was 46 seconds to Kwiatkowski and Trentin, and 1:10 to Schachmann.

With 4.6km to go, Fuglsang attacked again, hoping to catch Alaphilippe off guard. No dice. Fuglsang promptly got on his race radio, and was given the order — quit working. Sit on. A clearly frustrated Alaphilippe had words for Fuglsang, but the Dane refused to take the bait. It was a sensible strategy given their 40-second advantage, particularly as flags could be seen flapping in a headwind direction.

Between 2.5km to go and 1km to go, with Alaphilippe chipping away at the front, into the wind, their time gap dropped quickly — so much so that the splits were changing faster than they could be updated. In hindsight, it’s clear just how much Alaphilippe slowed the pace when Fuglsang quit working, and how much Fuglsang’s efforts had been driving their breakaway.

Behind, Van der Poel was driving a group that contained Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), Alessandro De Marchi (CCC), Bjorg Lambrecht (Lotto-Soudal), and Valentin Madouas  (Groupama-FDJ). In between them, Kwiatkowski rode away from Trentin just as Schachmann had finally reached Trentin’s rear wheel.

And this is where things really got crazy.

Inside the final 2km — 1.5km to go for Alaphilippe and Fuglsang — the time gaps began plummeting. Van der Poel and his group caught onto Trentin and Schachmann; the gap from Alaphilippe and Fuglsang to Kwiatkowski was reported as 23 seconds, and 28 seconds to Trentin, Schachmann, van der Poel, Clarke, and Mollema. However, a close watch on replay will show that those time gaps were fluctuating rapidly on the slight rise before the finish.

Fuglsang returned to the front to pull as the leaders approached 1.3km to go, but he rode slowly; Stephens would describe it as “walking pace.” As they made the final lefthand turn into a slightly downhill finish, they rode into a tail-crosswind. Downhill with a tailwind is generally a welcome reprieve after 266km of racing, but Fuglsang and Alaphilippe would quickly realize that by that point they had grossly misjudged their advantage.

“I said to them in the car, when they didn’t want me to pull anymore, that they needed to give me the times to the group behind,” Fuglsang said. “They told me in the last kilometer that they were 20 seconds behind. I looked behind me and saw Kwiatkowski 10 meters back. That’s not 20 seconds.”

At 800m to go, Kwiatkowski caught on, and for a brief moment, it looked to be a three-rider sprint, just ahead of the van der Poel group. And then, suddenly, inexplicably, the race came back together at the front. Alaphilippe was driving the lead group, looking backward, over his shoulder; van der Poel was driving the chase group, also looking over his shoulder. Given the situation, Alaphilippe made the decision to begin his sprint much earlier than he would have otherwise. With an incredible demonstration of power and determination, the Dutch champion began sprinting at nearly 500 meters from the line; he made the catch just before the 100 meters to go sign.

Van der Poel couldn’t believe he’d sprinted for the victory.

“I wanted to sprint for the podium,” van der Poel said. “I felt that I still had good legs. When I reached the finishing straight, I saw the leaders 100 meters ahead of me. I started sprinting at 400 meters from the line. I tried to surprise them. I was incredibly lucky that the wind was at my back, it allowed me to keep my speed to the line.”

At Strade Bianche, the cat-and-mouse between Fuglsang and Alaphilippe allowed Wout van Aert to catch back on in the final kilometer, though he was promptly dropped again on the final climb. At Amstel Gold Race, their tactical stalemate allowed first Kwiatkowski, and then what was left of the chase group, to all catch back on. For Alaphilippe, it was an unmitigated disaster.

“Honestly, I don’t know what happened,” Alaphippe told Het Nieuwsblad. “I gave the maximum from the moment I attacked to the finish. Jakob and I worked well together, and I thought we would sprint for victory. I thought we had a 45-second lead three kilometers from the finish line, and it would suffice.”

SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS

On a difficult day where former world champion Peter Sagan abandoned and current world champion Alejandro Valverde finished outside of the top 50 for the first time at any race since May 2016, Mathieu van der Poel — a rider who has been criticized in the cyclocross community for giving up when the chips were down and victory appeared impossible —  defied all odds and took an impossible victory.

In the aftermath of such a surprising finish, there were allegations that van der Poel’s group must have received assistance from motorbikes and caravan vehicles. “I wonder what happened,” Klaas Lodewyck, director at Deceuninck- Quick Step, told Sporza. “The last information we received on the radio was that Alaphilippe and Fuglsang had a lead of 40 seconds about three kilometers before the finish. Normally that group could not return. I saw that there were a lot of cars and motorcycles between the first group and the pursuers, while that is not necessary in the final phase of this race.”

However, as Dutch journalist Thijs Zonneveld explained in a series of tweets, assembled here, there was nothing visible in the available TV pictures that looked out of the ordinary.

“Conclusion: Yes, there were two motos between the front runners and van der Poel,” Zonneveld wrote. “But they were logically there because there were also small groups among them. Van der Poel could not stay behind for a long time. They sat there and he drove past them.

“Are camera engines sometimes too close to the race?” Zonneveld continued. “Yes, for sure. Leaders, in particular, are regularly favored. Did something strange happen in the Amstel during than der Poel’s pursuit? That is certainly not apparent from the TV images. Alaphilippe, Fuglsang, and their teams have to look to themselves. They slowed the pace so much that both Kwiatkowski and the van der Poel group could return.”

Kwiatkowski and Trentin spent much of the final 30km stuck between the two leaders and the chase group behind.

Alaphilippe struck a defiant tone in his post-race interviews, telling Het Nieuwsblad that while he’d been cramping, and while Fuglsang sat on, the idea that a 35-second gap could be closed in two kilometers bordered on “impossible.”

“I’m not disappointed that I didn’t win, but I’m disappointed in the way I did,” Alaphilippe said. “At 2km from the finish, the director of the race told us we had a 35-second lead. That means those other riders raced 15 seconds per kilometer faster than we did. I think that’s impossible.”

Things weren’t all that much clearer for the race winner.

“At three kilometers from the finish, nobody could tell me what position I was riding in, in this chaotic final,” van der Poel told Het Nieuwsblad. “Not the race radio, not the team car. I was hoping that they would start looking at each other at the front, because you are sitting there with big names. I rose above myself. I felt there was still something in my legs. You notice in such classics that it is very difficult at the end for everyone. On instinct I went again, I just rode away with a group, and we caught them.”

Fuglsang managed to hang on to a podium finish, but he regretted making an “incredible mistake” that saw him lose the opportunity to sprint against Alaphilippe for victory.

Fuglsang, who had also said the time splits they’d received didn’t match what was happening on the road, ultimately blamed his tactical stalemate with Alaphilippe, while claiming that it was the Deceuninck-Quick Step rider who had paid the heavier price.

“I can only say that we have made an incredible mistake in the last three kilometers,” Fuglsang said. “We felt that Kwiatkowski and Trentin would not return. That’s how it sounded in the follow car. It is a shame that I saw a certain second place fall away.

“In the end, [Alaphilippe] is the one who’s lost out today,” he continued. “He would have had a big chance to win if he’d pulled, and I still did most of the work out there. From when he attacked, I was the one who was putting in the most effort because he always said that he was fucked. But he did the same at Strade Bianche, and he still got me there, so that’s the game. That’s the tactic. I managed to get on the podium, and the legs were there, but I still believe that, had I kept doing turns with Alaphilippe a little longer and maybe waited to play until the last kilometer, it would’ve turned out to be a minimum of second place, or possible victory. But that’s cycling.”

Kwiatkowski, who looked to be sprinting for the win with 800 meters to go after chasing for 30km, would finish outside of the top 10; the former world champion said even before van der Poel’s group caught them, he knew just reaching the podium would be his best possible outcome.

“In the last kilometer there wasn’t much going through my mind,” Kwiatkowski said. “My only thoughts were to get on the podium because I knew the big group was coming behind.  I couldn’t think about the win anymore, it was an impossible task with a fresh Alaphilippe and Fuglsang, so I was just doing my best to hold on to arrive at the finish before that group. In the end they caught us, and van der Poel was the strongest.”

VAN DER POEL, THE PHENOM

Though Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège are still to be contested, the Amstel Gold Race marks the end of Mathieu van der Poel’s spring classics debut.

And while cobblestone classics stars such as Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) will race Liège, even a victory for either of them would not change this irrefutable fact: With wins at GP Denain, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Brabantse Pijl, and Amstel Gold Race — and fourth-place finishes at Gent-Welvelem and the Ronde van Vlaanderen — van der Poel has had a more successful classics campaign than the Olympic champion, the three-time world champion, and just about everyone else in the sport for that matter.

Alaphilippe, winner at Milan-San Remo and Strade Bianche, could change that with wins at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where he will start as the big pre-race favorite.

As for van der Poel, his 2019 road season is more or less over as he shifts gears in preparation for the opening weekend of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Albstadt, Germany, in mid-May, though it’s not been ruled out that he might return for a few road races, such as the Dutch national road championship, in late June, or even the road world championship, in Yorkshire, in late September.

Van der Poel is committed to racing on his mountain bike through the 2020 Olympic Games. Between his Corendon-Circus Pro Continental team, which has signed him through the 2023 season, and his bike sponsor Canyon, there is a full embrace of his unconventional cross-discipline approach.

And yet for all of his accomplishments across cyclocross and now the road, Van der Poel hasn’t won an XCO World Cup event in a discipline where Swiss world champion Nino Schurter reigns supreme. Though he’s beaten Schurter in STXC World Cup events, his closest finish to the Scott-SRAM rider in a cross-country race was in Albstadt in 2017, when van der Poel finished second, 26 seconds back, after a mid-race crash.

Perhaps that will change this year. If van der Poel learned anything in winning the Amstel Gold Race, it’s that the race is never truly over until the finish line.

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