Mathieu van der Poel arrives at the Tour de France ready to be more than Jasper Philipsen’s delivery guy

Mathieu van der Poel raises his bike in triumph at the finish of the Tour of Flanders (AP)
Mathieu van der Poel raises his bike in triumph at the finish of the Tour of Flanders (AP)

Perhaps the most enduring image of the cycling season so far is Mathieu van der Poel standing on the finish line of the Tour of Flanders with mud splattered down his crisp, white world champion’s jersey, raising his bike to the sky like an offering to the gods. Here was a rider so utterly dominant over a world-class field that he had time to hop off for some showmanship, and somehow still with the strength to lift his bike like paper after such a brutal ride.

It was, as it turned out, his last drop of energy.

“It’s one of the hardest races I’ve ever done,” Van der Poel said. He was asked if he could repeat the feat at Paris-Roubaix a week later. “I cannot think about Roubaix yet. I’m really, really f****d.”

He would go on to complete the double in equally emphatic style, becoming only the third man this century to win Flanders and Roubaix in the same year. Only nine men in the history of the sport have won more than his six Monument races and, aged 29, there is plenty of time to climb the list.

“Now it seems obvious that I am capable of winning another one but you never know what happens in cycling, of course, with injury or…” Van der Poel tells The Independent. He is scratching his head for anything else that might stop him, and he can’t come up with much. “You only get one opportunity a year to win each Monument, but I think I have some more in me. So we’ll see where I can end up.”

Van der Poel walks over the finish line with his bike aloft (Canyon/Kramon)
Van der Poel walks over the finish line with his bike aloft (Canyon/Kramon)

Both races were won with typically aggressive solo attacks that obliterated the field. Van der Poel is a master of this, of sensing the moment – the conditions, the weather, the distance, the feeling in his legs, the look in his rival’s eyes – and knowing when to go.

“It’s more art than science,” he says. “I never really plan my attacks. I always go on feel and how the race is developing. It’s just instinct to choose my moment, to feel the race a bit, and I think it’s one of my strengths. Then it’s basically just head down and go as fast as possible.”

Now the Tour de France looms and, for one of the greatest one-day riders of all time and a multidiscipline world champion, his cupboard is strangely bare. Van der Poel has only one stage win in three years riding the Tour.

There are some significant caveats. He has picked up plenty of assists along the way, delivering teammate Jasper Philipsen to the sprint finish on a silver plate while looking so serene you suspect he could have won it himself had he tried. Photographs would show Philipsen celebrating while in the background of the shot, a little out of focus, was Van der Poel, gliding over the line without breaking sweat.

Grand tours are a team game and Van der Poel is a committed team player, at times fulfilling the role of luxury sidekick, like the world’s best paid delivery guy. And yet, he is a demi-god of the sport who has barely made a footnote in the history books of its greatest race. Does that not bother him?

“Yeah, for sure. I would love to win a second one. But it’s becoming really difficult. The parcours [route] is getting harder and harder so there’s really limited chances on the Tour de France. There’s also a lot of riders that are capable of winning one but the goal is to try and win a second stage.”

Van der Poel en route to winning this year’s Paris-Roubaix (©kramon)
Van der Poel en route to winning this year’s Paris-Roubaix (©kramon)

He has arrived at past Tours with one eye on a looming Olympic Games or world championships, and has twice left the race early to prepare. This year will be different: Van der Poel is committed to riding the entire Tour, so much so that he has opted not to ride the Olympic mountain bike race this summer, scheduled only eight days after the Tour ends. He would have been favourite for gold.

Illness and a lack of freshness have also played their part in Van der Poel’s incomplete Tour de France story, but this time he feels sharp. Remarkably, the first stage of the Tour – which begins in Florence – will be only his eighth day of racing all year, and it is the kind of lumpy, hard route that it is easy to imagine him crushing to grab hold of the yellow jersey.

The gravel roads of stage nine also look perfectly suited to his skills, but Van der Poel has not planned his moments of attack. “You never know which stages you’re gonna feel great or when there’s a chance, and you also never know how they race that stage. So you have to be open-minded to grab the chance when it comes.”

His bromance with Philipsen is one of the key storylines in the second series of Netflix’s popular Tour de France: Unchained. The duo are painted as the jocks of the peloton, bad boys who don’t care about crashes, rules or fines. It is an embellishment of the truth, though undoubtedly they share a ruthless streak.

“It’s fun,” Van der Poel says of their partnership. “He’s really focused before his sprints, of course, which is a good thing, but for the rest he’s just a relaxed guy and he doesn’t bother too much.”

Van der Poel won’t be watching the new series. “I haven’t watched the first series so I don’t think I will watch the second one,” he laughs. “That’s one of the reasons why I don’t watch it, of course. I saw with Formula One, there’s also some drivers that don’t really like how they came out of the series. Of course they tried to create some drama and create some characters.”

Van der Poel, left, and Jasper Philipsen make a formidable duo (Pool via Reuters)
Van der Poel, left, and Jasper Philipsen make a formidable duo (Pool via Reuters)

Van der Poel made headlines this spring when he signed a 10-year contract with Canyon. Lucrative partnerships between famous brands and riders with star power are becoming more common in the peloton, although Van der Poel’s deal is by far the longest and most eye-catching.

At the same time, he signed a five-year contract with his team, Alpecin-Deceuninck. That contract, combined with the make-up of his Canyon deal – five years as a rider, five as an ambassador – indicates a retirement plan at the age of 34.

“[Canyon] has been part of the journey I’ve been through and I’ve always been super happy with the bikes, so it was quite an easy decision. Also with the ambassador role, I will not be a cyclist for 10 years any more, but I would like to still be able to be an ambassador for such a big brand when I retire.”

Long sponsorship deals are not always straightforward at the top of the sport, as riders tend to keep themselves free to move between different teams that work with different manufacturers. But Van der Poel has been with the Belgium-based Alpecin-Deceuninck his entire career and plans to see out his days there.

It is easy to see why Canyon would want Van der Poel as their face, when he lifts his bike over his head like a trophy on the finish line in Flanders. Google searches and sales of the bike he rides spiked after his major wins. Now, after three years of illness, distraction and serving others, Van der Poel is ready to build his own brand at the Tour de France.