Mathieu van der Poel speaks over Zoom at a pre-race press conference ahead of the 2022 Giro d'Italia. Photo: Getty Images

At the Giro, Mathieu van der Poel is trying to hide in plain sight

Mathieu van der Poel entered the Giro quietly but is the odds-on favorite for the first maglia rosa.

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Mathieu van der Poel and his Alpecin-Fenix teammates exited their team bus in black T-shirts, rolling to the Giro d’Italia’s team presentation incognito. 

The big reveal: a special green jersey (the color is called Verde Comodoro, and it looks damn good) in honor of Fenix’s new high-quality, flexible wall covering called X-Kin, which is, in case you were wondering, both incredibly matte, soft to the touch, AND is anti-fingerprint.

It’s fancy green wallpaper, and it looks for all the world like the team wants to dive into the woods and blend right in. 

But a wallflower Van der Poel will not be. 

Off the back of a rushed Classics campaign that nonetheless resulted in a Tour of Flanders victory, Van der Poel headed to the Grande Partenza in Hungary with minimal fanfare. Throughout his press conference on Wednesday he sought to temper expectations. “There’s a big question mark on how my body will feel,” he said.

Things he doesn’t care about include: winning the points jersey, the Maglia Ciclamino; doing anything on GC (he sort of laughed when he misheard a question and thought Alberto Contador suggested he would be on the podium in three weeks’ time); wearing leader’s jerseys in all three Grand Tours (yellow card for excessive humility for this one).

He wants to do leadouts for his teammate, Jakub Marezko, who has been second three times at this race but never won a stage. He wants to see if the Grand Tour fitness bump is a thing. “You hear it a lot that you become a stronger rider after a Grand Tour,” he says. He’d like to be stronger after this one.

Yet for his second Grand Tour in a row, signs point to Van der Poel finishing stage one with a leader’s jersey. Not little signs, either. Big, neon signs.

Van der Poel at the Giro’s teams presentation.

The first maglia rosa of this Giro d’Italia will be awarded at the top of a 5 km, 5% climb that, depending on subtleties like wind direction, suits anyone from Alejandro Valverde to Caleb Ewan. That means it most definitely suits Mathieu van der Poel in any weather.

He’s the bookie’s favorite for that stage, no matter how much he wants to ride under the radar.

“We did it today, I did the final climb, I wanted to see the stage finish of the first one,” Van der Poel said. “It’s not really steep, there will be a lot of benefit to staying in the bunch, it will be difficult to attack there. It will be difficult to drop the sprinters like Ewan. We’ll see how the race goes to see if the win is possible.” 

A win is possible. If Valverde and Ewan are the ends of a spectrum, you’ll find Van der Poel right in the middle. Top of the bell curve. Big group, small group, he can win out of either. It’s not that the stage is his to lose – there’s too much chance in an opening day for that sort of nonsense – but precisely nobody would be shocked if he won. 

There’s little surprise Van der Poel is coy regarding his chances of an early maglia rosa. The same sort of expectation was piled on ahead of the opening stage of last year’s Tour de France, another finale that felt perfectly suited for his skillset. But when Julian Alaphilippe took off on the final steep kicker to Landernau, Van der Poel could only watch. 

“Last year the first stage [of the Tour] suited me well, too,” he said. “It sounds easy, but that isn’t the case.” 

Where Van der Poel goes, expectations follow. He’s 27 now, used to it. He knows what he wants to do, what he probably can do. There’s no camouflage he can hide in anymore. Not even Verde Comodoro.

We can see you, Mathieu. 

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