Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) will line up for the Tour of Flanders on Sunday as one of the favourites alongside Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Julian Alaphilippe (Elegant-QuickStep). However, it's been Van der Poel's spat with Van Aert following last weekend's Gent-Wevelgem, at which the two riders marked each other out of the race, that has been making the headlines – along with speculation over whether it could happen again at the Ronde.
Van der Poel told Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday that he remains bemused by Van Aert's post-race comments last weekend, as he felt that he had no choice but to mark the Belgian if he wanted any chance of winning.
"I still think that I rode the race I had to ride in Gent-Wevelgem," Van der Poel said. "Yes, the moment Van Aert goes it alone in the full final, I'm going to try to get him back. But what many forget, including Wout, is that the whole chasing group was looking at me at that moment to go and get him.
"If I hadn't, I couldn't have won anyway," he said. "Give Van Aert 10 seconds and you won't see him again. That's why I rode behind him – purely and only because I wanted to win myself."
Van Aert: Alaphilippe and Van der Poel biggest challengers for Tour of Flanders
10 riders to watch at the men's Tour of Flanders
Van der Poel 'not losing sleep' over Van Aert rivalry ahead of Tour of Flanders
Rivalry ruins Gent-Wevelgem for Van Aert and Van der Poel
It was Van Aert who effectively initiated the war of words when he vented his frustration in an interview immediately after last Sunday's race.
"Actually, there was only one rider who was really targeting me," he said, referring to Van der Poel. "Apparently, he preferred to see me lose rather than making a chance to win the race himself."
Until then, the rivalry between the two cyclo-cross world champions turned road stars has been largely one of silent respect.
"I didn't expect him to be so frustrated," Van der Poel said of Van Aert's reaction. "I thought he understood what the race was like. For me, that was a very strange reaction.
"It makes sense that I responded to him. Without that statement from him, I wouldn't ever have said anything," he added. "By the way, the fact that I said that I reacted to him [during the race] because he is currently one of the best riders in the world, that seems like a compliment, doesn't it?"
Whether the two riders can now put things behind them remains to be seen – and Van der Poel says that he already has – but Van der Poel also said that he'd be happy to work with Van Aert if the occasion demands it at Flanders, as he would have done at Gent-Wevelgem last week if the situation had been different.
"Rest assured: if Van Aert and I had been together [on our own] 20 seconds ahead of the rest after the Kemmelberg, we would have worked together," he said. "That will be no different at the Tour de Flanders. If the two of us are together on the Paterberg and we get a gap, then it would be logical that we'd work with each other all the way to the line – of course."
Not a bad season
While few would deny that Van Aert has had the better 2020 season – with victories at Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo, a defence of his Belgian time trial champion's title, stage wins at the Tour de France and Critérium du Dauphiné, and silver medals in both the road race and time trial at the World Championships – Van der Poel pointed put that he also hasn't had a bad year, and in no way needs to win in Flanders in order to 'save his season'.
"Dutch road race champion, a stage at Tirreno-Adriatico, a stage and the overall victory at the Binckbank Tour… If you sum it all up like that, that's not so bad," he said. "Especially because I rode races in what has been a weird season that don't suit me 100 per cent, and where I was still very good.
"I also finished in the top 10 at both Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia. But the perception is always the same: if people don't see me finishing in first place, I'm not doing well," he said, seemingly a little wearily.
For Flanders, Van der Poel named Van Aert as one of his main rivals for victory in Oudenaarde on Sunday afternoon, along with a number of others.
"I expect Alaphilippe to be up there at the front, and Alberto Bettiol [EF Pro Cycling, and last year's winner] was strong at Wevelgem. And then Mads Pedersen [Trek-Segafredo], of course, and keep an eye on Yves Lampaert [Elegent-QuickStep], too.
"Alaphilippe would be a nice winner – I like him, and the rainbow jersey always looks good on the podium. But whoever turns out to be the strongest deserves to win, and will be a great winner in my eyes," Van der Poel said, adding: "If Van Aert is the strongest at the Ronde, he'll be a great winner. Who knows? He might even get a high five from me."