Moments that mattered: Mathieu van der Poel’s 2019 Amstel Gold domination

Shock and awe and lily-white shorts.

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A lot has happened since April 21, 2019. Given the events of the intervening years – and I’m not just talking about the dawning of a new (predominantly Slovenian) decade in pro cycling – it takes some doing to cast our minds back to that weekend.

Let me paint the picture. The last winner of the Tour de France was Geraint Thomas, Primož Roglič was yet to win a Grand Tour, Tadej Pogačar was just 20 race days – and two wins – into his pro career (his 2019 AGR result: DNF), Alejandro Valverde was World Champion, Mark Cavendish was ‘over the hill’, and Mathieu van der Poel was touring the spring calendar in a pair of lily-white shorts.

One week before Amstel Gold weekend, four-time winner Philippe Gilbert had fought his way to a historic Paris-Roubaix victory, ticking off his fourth of the five Monuments – a women’s Paris-Roubaix still barely more than a pipe dream. A week before that, we’d enjoyed a rare underdog victory at the Tour of Flanders courtesy of Alberto Bettiol who’d taken the favourites by surprise 18 km from the finish, soloing to his first pro victory at one of the biggest races of the year.

It had already been a spring to remember.

The morning of the 54th Amstel Gold Race dawned bright and sunny, temperatures expected to exceed 20 degrees Celsius by the day’s peak, and the wind? Negligible. The riders looked forward to a hard and fast edition, but fans, spectators and commentators had no reason to elevate their expectations of a typically unexciting event. How very wrong we were.

6.5 hours and 265.7 km after the peloton rolled out of Maastricht, riders, pundits and journalists alike were celebrating, as Eurosport commentator Rob Hatch described it, “one of most incredible wins you are ever likely to see in the history of professional cycling”. All thanks to the aforementioned phenom in his dazzling shorts. Let’s relive the day.

Round 1: the gauntlet is thrown down

Mathieu van der Poel arrived in Maastricht intent on animating the sole WorldTour race on home soil – a race won by his father Adrie in 1990 – before taking a hiatus from the road to compete MTB in preparation for the Olympic Games the following year (sigh).

The Dutch national champion had never raced Amstel Gold before. It’s now hard to imagine a spring without Van der Poel and Wout van Aert (who was only seven weeks deep into his Jumbo-Visma tenure – his AGR result: 58th), but 2019 saw the most fleshed-out and determined Spring Classics calendar of his career thus far. After a ridiculous – read: unbelievably prolific – cyclocross season during which he’d won 32 out of 34 races, Van der Poel scored his first road win on his first outing of the season at the 2.2-ranked Tour of Antalya. He went on to win the Grand Prix Denain before finishing fourth at Gent-Wevelgem, his first WorldTour appearance, and then won Dwars door Vlaanderen a week later (his second WorldTour appearance).

The then-24-year-old scored two more wins before his last major goal of the spring, and he signed on for his maiden Amstel Gold Race with a target on his back. Even so, though his extraordinary power was never in doubt, there were still faint question marks around the strength of his Correndon-Circus team and his own road tactics. These question marks lasted maybe five more hours.

With a ten-rider breakaway still a minute up the road, Van der Poel went on the attack around 40km from the finish on the punchy Gulperberg climb. It was an out-of-the-saddle acceleration that had cyclocross written all over it, and which apparently his father had warned him not to throw down until much later in the race.

A dazzling attack.

Perhaps Junior heard Senior’s words echoing in his skull when he found himself back in the peloton a few kilometres later, and then again when Quick-Step put the hammer down, caught the breakaway and prepared Julian Alaphilippe for his launch.

It seemed that Van der Poel was on the back foot, but he’d shown his rivals the ferocity of his acceleration, something that they would fall victim to again before the day was out.

Round 2: spring rivals ride away to *ahem* certain victory

Fuglsang and Alaphilippe got away late and looked to have the race sewn up.

Alaphilippe vs Jakob Fuglsang was becoming a familiar sight that spring, the latter having successfully turned himself from a hot-and-cold GC rider into a punchy rouleur and future – very near future – Monument winner (his 2019 Ardennes Week record: third, second, first).

Their first bout came at Strade Bianche where the pair broke clear from the rest of the favourites, but proceeded to toy with one another in the closing kilometres, stalling enough to let Van Aert back up to the front. Alaphilippe wrestled that round from the Dane with a late surge into the Piazza del Campo, and though Fuglsang got a point on the board at Tirreno-Adriatico, the Frenchman kept the advantage in the build-up to the Ardennes.

Inevitably, the duel continued on the road to Berg en Terblijt, Alaphilippe and Fuglsang proving yet again to be well-matched (in all but the sprint for the line), two key protagonists in the hilly classics of 2019. Alaphilippe had attacked with 36 km to go and only Fuglsang could or would follow.

With 20 km to go, Amstel Gold was considered over, the leading duo holding a handy buffer over the chasers. With Michał Kwiatkowski and Matteo Trentin wedged somewhere in between, Van der Poel at this point was in the third group on the road, about a minute in arrears and barely featuring in the commentary at all; his race was done.

Round 3: the leaders are caught, twice

‘Kwiato’ made contact with the two leaders with about 700m to go … but behind him the Van der Poel-led group was just about to make contact as well.

Just as the Alaphilippe-Fuglsang duel was a familiar story that spring, their inability to work together and their propensity for poorly timed cat-and-mousery would also become a major theme.

The pair had stretched out enough of a buffer for everyone else to peg their hopes to a podium, but then they replayed their own mistake from Strade Bianche by focussing only on each other and letting the air out of their advantage. They were lucky in Tuscany; Van Aert didn’t have the legs. Their luck ran out in the Netherlands.

With the finish line agonisingly close, 2015-winner Kwiatkowski was first to join the party, carrying significantly more speed than the stalling arch-nemeses who had led the race for 35 km. He swerved off Fuglsang’s wheel – the Dane hardly pedalling – and straight onto the front, forcing a long overdue acceleration.

Kwiatkowski’s arrival significantly upped the pace, but it was not quite enough.

Just a handful of seconds behind the Pole, Van der Poel led a nine-man group that included Simon Clarke, Matteo Trentin, Valentin Madouas (of last week’s Tour of Flanders podium), and Bjorg Lambrecht who was having a breakthrough spring in a career that would be cut devastatingly short a few months later.

Not only had the Dutch national champion all but single-handedly dragged his group back into contention, turning a disadvantage of over a minute into a handful of seconds in the last 10 km, but once he’d made the catch, he flew off Fuglsang’s wheel without a moment’s respite and sliced his way through the last 100 metres. Despite all the effort he’d made in the last 45 km of the race, no one could pass him in the sprint, and Van der Poel was left as shocked as anyone, the first home winner in almost two decades.

If in doubt, lead it out.

With Van der Poel shaking his head in disbelief, the remains of the day were found in his slipstream. Glued to the wheel and white shorts of the winner was Simon Clarke who lunged for second, while Fuglsang grovelled home in third. Alaphilippe meanwhile had momentum to thank for his fourth place as he soft-pedalled over the line with his own very different shake of the head.

Agony? Ecstasy? Both?

The word on everybody’s lips, including the winner himself as he collapsed breathless, hysterical, delirious to the ground, was “unbelievable”.

That’s what they call a well-deserved beverage.

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