Since the Tour of Britain had left Glasgow the question had been not whether Mathieu van der Poel would strike but when and where. In Kirkcudbright, Kelso and Newcastle, he had been slightly out of position in each of the mass sprints, but Beast Banks in Kendal was the steepest finish so far and, outside the tiny post office that inspired the creation of Postman Pat, the Dutch prodigy finally delivered to snatch the stage win and the race lead.
A select lead group of about 40 hit the bottom of the 500m climb out of the centre of Kendal on the coat-tails of a three-rider escape including Yorkshire’s James Shaw, overhauled them as they passed the mint cake factory, and almost immediately Van der Poel launched his effort at the 300m to go mark. “It was a bit of a gamble,” he said afterwards, “because I didn’t know where the finish was, but I got bumped a bit yesterday [in Newcastle] and I didn’t want that to happen again.”
The 24-year-old’s key quality is his explosive jump as he attacks a sprint or a hill. It is almost worthy of a track racer. Beast Banks came after a long day out with a wealth of climbing in the north Pennines and Howgills as the peloton chased a long-range attack by the 2014 winner Dylan van Baarle, France’s Axel Domont and the Irishman Eddie Dunbar, but it did nothing to blunt Van der Poel.
As he surged clear he was clearly never going to be recaptured. “It was a bit far, but at 100m to go, the road got easier.” The overnight leader Matteo Trentin was among the riders on Van der Poel’s heels, but the Dutchman earned a 10-second time bonus that gave him a 1sec lead overall and puts him in with a chance of the biggest stage race win of a golden career.
Van der Poel is only 24 but he has an illustrious family heritage, a golden past and is tipped as potentially one of the biggest cycling stars of the next few years. The son of the Dutch Classics specialist Adri van der Poel, and the grandson on the maternal side of the most popular French cyclist ever, Raymond Poulidor, he has devoted himself to cyclocross for much of his career, winning two world titles with another at mountain bike cross country.
In the last couple of seasons he has turned increasingly to professional road racing, to equally devastating effect. His victory in the Amstel Gold Classic in April was part of a spring campaign which included two other major one-day wins, and he will be a hot favourite for the world road race championships in Yorkshire later this month.
Van der Poel goes into Wednesday’s loop up around the Wirral with a slender one-second advantage over Trentin, who may challenge in the intermediate and finish sprints, all of which carry time bonuses, but with the time gaps across the top 20 counted in just a handful of seconds, many will already have their minds set on Thursdaytomorrow’s time trial in Worcestershire.