Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Felix) kept his cool in a tense finale to claim his second Tour of Flanders title in a thrilling sprint finish on Sunday.
The Dutch rider, who had followed Tadej Pogacar’s accelerations throughout the race, produced a well-timed late burst with 250 metres to go. The Tour de France champion was left frustrated with fourth place as another Dutch rider, Dylan van Baarle, took second place ahead of France’s Valentin Madouas.
Pogacar, chasing his third Monument title but competing in the Flanders classic for the first time, was visibly angry after crossing the finishing line but could only blame himself for making the wrong decisions when it mattered. He paid the price for not launching the sprint while in an ideal position, wasting all the hard work he had put in earlier in the 272.5km race.
A brutal acceleration by the 23-year-old during the mid-race climb up the Oude Kwaremont, 60km from the finish in Oudenaarde, blew the favourites’ group apart. On the next hill, the Koppenberg, Pogacar (UAE-Team Emirates) attacked again with only Van der Poel and Madouas (Groupama-FDJ) managing to follow him.
The trio caught the last two breakaway riders, Van Baarle (Ineos) and Britain’s Fred Wright (Bahrain-Victorious), with 38km left with the chasers, including another British Ineos rider in Tom Pidcock, were hovering some 40 seconds behind.
On the third and final climb up to the Oude Kwaremont, Van der Poel was the only one able to follow the relentless Pogacar. The Slovenian left his rival gasping on the last ascent of the day, up to the Paterberg, but the Dutchman managed to stay on his wheel.
The duo had 30 seconds on Van Baarle and Madouas but as the leaders’ cat-and-mouse game began, the two chasers caught up with them. Van der Poel waited until that moment to start his sprint and Pogacar was boxed in, somehow missing out on what would have been a deserved podium finish.
“At first it wasn’t even sure if I would get to the Classics, [so] to win is incredible,” Van der Poel said afterwards. “I was just trying to hold the wheel of Tadej [on the climbs] … then I had a few kilometres to get the legs turning and focus on the sprint.”
“In the first moment I was really disappointed because I couldn’t do my sprint. I was boxed in, but that’s cycling,” said Pogacar. “I was not even mad [with] anyone. It might have seemed that way but I was frustrated with myself.”
Belgium’s Lotte Kopecky secured a first home triumph in the women’s race for 12 years after holding off Movistar’s Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten in a sprint finish. Kopecky’s SDWork teammate, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, came third.
“It’s quite overwhelming,” said Kopecky, who rides in the colours of the Belgian flag as national champion. “I’m very thankful to my teammates and I think this victory is not only for me but for them. I’m normally faster than Annemiek but after a hard race, you cannot be too confident.”