“I think now the real racing can start.”
Those were Mathieu van der Poel’s words a day before the Tour de France hits the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix on Wednesday.
The Dutchman was speaking ahead of the fourth stage on France’s north-western coast, where, as was the case on stages 2 and 3 in Denmark, he was working for the chances of his teammate, sprinter Jasper Philipsen.
Alpecin-Deceuninck didn’t get the stage win they were seeking, though, with Philipsen instead taking second at eight seconds down on the solo attacker – and race leader – Wout van Aert. The team’s attention will now turn back to their main star for stage 5, the 157km run from Lille to Arenberg.
Speaking in Dunkerque ahead of stage 4, Van der Poel said that the real nervousness will start with the peloton having completed the ‘rest day’ journey back to France on Monday.
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“It’s been a few quiet days in Denmark but also the course in the wind didn’t really provide the race circumstances to do something. But from today we’ll be really nervous, I think. Also, I think there are some chances for us as a team.
“Not that much actually,” was his response when asked about what preparation he did for stage 5, where he’ll be one of the hot favourites for victory alongside long-time rival Wout van Aert, Paris-Roubaix winner Dylan Van Baarle, and Trek-Segafredo pairing Mads Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven, among others.
“It’s just a really small Paris-Roubaix,” he continued. “It’s not a lot of sections here but for sure it’s like every time they’ll run up into the section is going to be more nervous than the sections itself.
“I think it’s just going to be really nervous. If you already can stay out of out of trouble and don’t have a mechanical, I think you can already go far.”
While April’s Paris-Roubaix, as well as the other cobbled Classics, are day-long races suited for the pure specialists, cobbled stages at the Tour are a different story.
Here, riders such as Tadej Pogačar, Aleksandr Vlasov, and Ben O’Connor will be thrown into the mix, with far more teams battling for the front of the peloton alongside those Classics squads whose focus lies away from the general classification – such as Alpecin-Deceuninck, Trek-Segafredo, and QuickStep-AlphaVinyl.
“That’s what’s difficult about the Tour and other Grand Tours as well,” Van der Poel said. “The GC guys also want to be there in front, and that makes it really nervous and hectic. In the end we have the stage win to play for, but they can lose a lot more so it’s understandable that it’s quite nervous.
“That’s the question you can ask yourself, of course,” he said when mooting whether the cobbles – which can ruin a GC contenders’ race before it has really begun – should have a place in the Tour. “But it’s maybe also a small part of being the being a complete rider. But for me, I don’t know. It’s a question you can ask.”
Van der Poel and his Alpecin-Deceuninck team won’t be worrying about the overall contenders on Wednesday, though. However, he will be taking aim at yellow. The Tour of Flanders champion currently lies in fifth, 38 seconds off the lead of Van Aert after the Belgian’s daring solo ride victory. That could all change on the cobbles.
“I think there’s a chance to take it, for sure,” he said. “But as I said I think there’s all the guys that are within one minute of Van Aert can still aim for the yellow jersey and I think for me a stage win is the thing I was aiming at so it’s not going to be easy.
“I need to find my good legs, of course. I’m still searching for them, and I hope to find them this week. For me, the preparation after my previous Grand Tour was a bit of an unknown, the preparation after my previous Grand Tour, and then the preparation for this one so it’s a question mark for me as well. I hope that they will return.”