Words by Nick Bull | Photos by SWpix.com
First the tribute kit, now the symbolic victory. The first two stages of Mathieu van der Poel’s Tour de France career have provided the Dutchman with a dramatic and emotional showcase to celebrate his grandfather, Raymond Poulidor, who passed away in November 2019. As he sat up to celebrate winning at Mûr-de-Bretagne on Sunday, van der Poel raised his finger towards the sky, leaving no doubt as to who his stage victory was dedicated to.
That his victory, combined with the bonus seconds he gained after attacking on the first ascent of the climb, moved him into the yellow jersey added a hint of irony to proceedings: Poulidor, the eternal second, famously never led the race during his 14 Tour starts. Van der Poel achieved that feat within nine hours of arriving at the race. “Imagine if he was here, how proud he would have been,” he said of his grandfather.
That van der Poel won the stage with the margin he did – six seconds over Tadej Pogačar, Primož Roglič and Wilco Kelderman, eight on the Julian Alaphilippe-led chase – on a climb that historically produces small gaps among the protagonists, was the perfect riposte to his underwhelming performance in Saturday’s opening stage. Whether it was first day nerves, the attention created by Alpecin-Fenix’s Mercier-inspired kit or his desire to take yellow for his grandfather, van der Poel seemed every bit like the Tour rookie that we should not forget he is. “Already at the start [today] the stress was gone,” said his team-mate Jonas Rickaert. “If you look back to yesterday he was full of stress, to do better than his grandad [by taking the yellow jersey], and you felt that he would do something special again.”
This was van der Poel as his prodigious best. After neutralising Sonny Colbrelli’s acceleration with 800 metres remaining, the Dutchman gave a split-second glance back to those behind him, presumably to survey where Alaphilippe and Wout Van Aert were, before launching his attack. By the 500-metre-to-go marker, it was evident that Alaphilippe’s chances of becoming the first rider since Jan Raas in 1978 to win the opening two stages of the Tour had all-but disappeared. And with Pogačar and Roglič more concerned with each other than closing the Dutchman down, van der Poel soloed to the line, deploying that unmistakable head down, teeth out, slightly twitchy style of his.
He had earlier laid out his desire to take the maillot jaune on the first ascent of the climb, boldly attacking 1,800 metres from its summit in search of the eight bonus seconds available to the first person across the line. “I gambled a little bit,” said van der Poel. “I played everything I had the first time because I knew I needed the bonus seconds if I wanted the yellow jersey. I knew it was my last chance to get the jersey [in this year’s race].”
Given his famed turn of speed, the move seemed a little over-enthusiastic, especially since he was almost caught by Pogačar, Roglič and Alaphilippe before the line. Nonetheless, it was a reprisal of his slightly unconventional race craft, memorably seen on that wet Tirreno-Adriatico stage he won into Castelfidardo after a daring long-range move earlier this year. He’s not afraid to go against racing conventions when it suits him. As proven by his near misses, particularly those at this year’s Milan-Sanremo and Tour of Flanders, van der Poel accepts that he cannot win if he’s afraid to lose.
When Seb Piquet, who conducts the flash interviews for TV, asked van der Poel who he was thinking about when he crossed the line, the response wasn’t unexpected. “My grandad, of course,” came the reply, before the Dutchman burst into tears. His clinical stage win may have displayed a ruthlessness that was more reminiscent of Jacques Anquetil’s racing style in the 1960s, but the emotional tribute to Poupou was complete.