Mathieu van der Poel overcame his rival Wout van Aert in a two-up sprint at the Tour of Flanders 2020, beating him on the line after having led out in the final kilometre.
The pair had been part of a move off the front alongside Julian Alaphilippe, the world champion having attacked with 45km remaining, Van der Poel immediately racing to get on the Frenchman’s wheel before Wout van Aert then moved up to make a leading trio.
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Disaster struck for Alaphilippe 10km later, though, after Van Aert had been drafting a motorbike, moving out of the way as it started to slow, Van der Poel then quickly moving across to avoid colliding but leaving Alaphilippe with no time to take evasive action, the Frenchman flung into the air and landing hard on his front, screaming in agony and out of the race.
Van der Poel and Van Aert pushed on, extending their lead to over a minute before an Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) counter-attack behind brought their advantage back down under the 60-second mark.
Up the Paterberg with 13km to go their move had clearly stuck, and the two rivals would be duking it out for victory.
Into the final 5km and their gap was still at 50 seconds, relaying to make sure they wouldn’t be caught. The game of cat and mouse began under the flamme rouge, the chasers slowly making ground behind as they sprinted for third.
Van Aert opened his sprint from behind having waited until 250m to go, the pair neck and neck but Van der Poel managed to edge him on the line, wild celebrations ensuing with his team as he came to a stop, having claimed his first Monument victory.
How it happened
The peloton were equipped with leg warmers and jackets as they rolled out of Antwerp under dull skies, in direct contrast to the mouthwatering day of racing ahead.
The day’s break numbered six riders, Gregor Mühlberger (Bora-Hansgrohe), Samuele Battistella (NTT Pro Cycling), Danny van Poppel (Circus-Wanty Gobert), Gijs Van Hoecke (CCC Team), Dimitri Peyskens (Bingoal-Wallonie Bruxelles) and Fabio Van Den Bossche (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise).
After they had been allowed up the road with a sizeable gap, Mühlberger made the cardinal sin of trying to sling his musette across his handlebars to dispose of it by the side of the road, the strap tangling around his handlebars and bringing him crashing to the ground.
The Austrian soon found his way back into the move as mechanical problems thwarted a number of riders, including Israel Start-Up Nation’s Nils Politt, who likely had more bike changes than the rest of the bunch combined throughout the day.
At the halfway point with 120km to go, the escapees had an advantage of more than seven minutes as Wout van Aert crashed down a grassy verge, his soft landing saving him from injury, the Belgian picking himself back up and getting back on his bike.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (NTT) then decided to attack, his move coming as a surprise, before it became a clearly canny decision, making his way through a level crossing just before it came down and blocked the peloton’s path, giving the Norwegian a bit more breathing room.
Ineos’ Owain Doull led the bunch up the Eikenberg before Niki Terpstra (Total Direct Energie) and Yves Lampaert (Elegant – Quick-Step) took over on the next hill, the uptick in speed eventually bringing Boasson Hagen to heel.
Trek-Segafredo then appeared back on the front, having been keen to dictate the pace in the early stages as they looked to control things for Mads Pedersen.
Michał Kwiatkowski (Ineos) then tested his legs out a couple of times, as others also hit out, with Zdenek Štybar and Florian Sénéchal marshalling proceedings for Julian Alaphilippe and Elegant – Quick-Step.
This all had the effect of bringing the break back within half a minute with just over 50km remaining on the approach to the Paterberg, and when they were caught Van der Poel, Naesen and Van Aert all quickly moved to the front.
It was Alaphilippe, however, alongside his team-mate Dries Devenyns and Dylan van Baarle (Ineos), who clipped off the front, with Romain Bardet and Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) as well as John Degenkolb (Lotto-Soudal) bringing the peloton back up to them.
Alaphilippe wasn’t done just yet, though, making another move as they hit the Koppenberg, with Naesen and Van der Poel following. Riders scrambled behind to get in contact with this dangerous move, around 20 riders left in the front now, as Alaphilippe pushed on once more as they descended.
The Frenchman then finally managed to snap the elastic, moving away with Van der Poel in tow with 45km remaining, as Wout van Aert chased back up to them on the Taaienberg, Van der Poel then nearly coming a cropper as he took a bottle from a soigneur.
Oliver Naesen was gesticulating madly behind, trying to get the chase group to work together, but the trio in front were relaying well and making their move stick.
So well, in fact, and utilising the draft from the moto, that as it slowed and pulled over to the side Van der Poel had to react quickly as Van Aert pulled out and moved past the vehicle. Alaphillipe, third in line, didn’t have time to avoid it, crashing into the back and getting flung over his handlebars, lying crumpled in a heap on the floor as he cried out in anguish, his race over for the day with only 35km to the line.
After a quick look around to see what had happened to their fallen rival, Van der Poel and Van Aert pressed on, maintaining their gap of over a minute.
Behind, Oliver Naesen continued to force the issue of the chase, then hitting out on his own with 16km to go, which went some way to invigorate the group, Sep Vanmarcke taking up the chase.
The two leaders eased themselves up and over the Paterberg with 13km to go, continuing to work well together as it became clear they would contest the win between themselves.
Their gap held until the flamme rouge, with Van der Poel leading out Van Aert, slowing into the final 500m as the sprint for third erupted behind.
Van Aert waited and waited, unfurling his sprint with less than 250m to go, as Van der Poel got out of his saddle and stamped on the pedals. The pair were neck and neck to the line, but Van der Poel just edged it, sneaking across the line to deny his rival another big 2020 victory, claiming his own first Monument and the victory that every Belgian rider dreams of.
Tour of Flanders 2020: Antwerpen to Oudenaarde (243.3km)
1. Mathieu van der Poel (Ned) Alpecin-Fenix
2. Wout van Aert (Bel) Jumbo-Visma
3. Alexander Kristoff (Nor) UAE Team Emirates
4. Anthony Turgis (Fra) Total Direct Energie
5. Yves Lampaert (Bel) Elegant – Quick-Step
6. Dimitri Claeys (Bel) Cofidis
7. Oliver Naesen (Bel) Ag2r La Mondiale
8. Dylan van Baarle (Ned) Ineos Grenadiers
9. John Degenkolb (Ger) Lotto-Soudal
10. Tiesj Benoot (Bel) Sunweb