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Van der Poel wins 'favourite classic' for third time

Mathieu van der Poel celebrateshis third Tour of Flanders victory (LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ)
Mathieu van der Poel celebrateshis third Tour of Flanders victory (LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ)

Mathieu van der Poel, at ease in the Belgian rain, powered into history on Sunday as he joined the elite group who have won the Tour of Flanders three times.

"It's my favourite classic. I fell in love with it the first time I took part. And it's the one that suits me best too," Van der Poel told the post-race press conference.

The 29-year-old Dutch rider finished just over a minute ahead of the chasing group as he became the sixth rider in the 111-year history of the race to claim three victories.

"Honestly, I don't pay particular attention to records," he said. "My career has already succeeded beyond my expectations. Everything is a bonus from now on."

Italian Luca Mozzato grabbed second, one minute and two seconds back, outsprinting Australian Michael Matthews to the line. But Matthews was then penalised for dangerous riding and German Nils Politt was awarded third.

"Winning the Tour of Flanders with the world champion's rainbow jersey on your back is a dream come true," Van der Poel said at the finish.

"It was the hardest Tour of Flanders I've ever done, one of the hardest races of my career. At the end I was finished. I crawled all the way to the finish line. It was really hard."

Sunday's slog through the second and most sacred 'monument' took riders over 270.2 kilometres and up 18 nasty climbs, under grey Belgian skies and through persistent rain that made the cobbled sections slippery.

Van der Poel, of the Alpecin-Deceuninck team, spent most of the first 220 kilometres stalking breakaways.

Ivan Garcia had built a lead of 10 seconds, but slipped out of his pedals trying to find the power to climb the cobbled Kloppenberg. Rather than try to remount on the steep slope the Spaniard pushed his bike up the hill. He was not the only one.

"It was chaos. I felt really good but I still had to get off my bike on the Kloppenberg," said Latvian Toms Skujins, who finished 10th.  "After that, Mathieu was alone in his world."

Van der Poel, a six time cyclo cross world champion at ease in miserable weather and on treacherous surfaces, surged up the hill and cut loose with 44 km to go.

- 'Really slippery' -

 

"When it started raining, I knew there was going to be chaos on the Kloppenberg," said Van der Poel. "I accelerated in the steepest part to avoid any trouble. But it was really slippery. I had trouble keeping traction. The plan wasn't to start from so far out, but there was no way back."

With 30km left, he led by 1 minute and 25 seconds from a seven-rider chasing group that had begun to argue among themselves.

The Dutch rider nursed that advantage to the line to join a select club.

No one has won cycling's oldest 'monument' four times. The last man to complete a hat-trick was Swiss Fabian Cancellara in 2014. Van der Poel's previous triumphs were in 2020 and 2022.

Van der Poel's two most powerful one-day rivals were absent. Defending Flanders champion, Tadej Pogacar is skipping the spring classics as he targets a Giro d'Italia-Tour de France double.

Wout Van Aert broke a collarbone and a rib in Around Flanders four days earlier.

"I'm really sorry for all the guys who fell," said van der Poel. "I'm... not close with him... but I'm always quoted in the same sentence as Van Aert and I know what he did to be ready...It's very hard for him."

Next Sunday, Van der Poel will defend his title in the cobbled monument, the Paris-Roubaix.

"We'll have to see how I recover day by day," he said. "I'm going to need several days to recover from today's race."

jk-pb/nr