Mathieu van der Poel (opens in new tab) came to Dwars door Vlaanderen 2021 as the defending champion and the rider with the most wins taking part in the race but he looked a shell of his normal self on the roads of Belgium.
Van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix (opens in new tab)) was dropped by the main favourites on the Knokteberg climb where he drifted back to the peloton that contained his team's on-form sprinter, Tim Merlier. The Belgian champion said he thought Van der Poel was joking when he said he wasn't feeling good.
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Merlier took third on the day behind eventual solo winner Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers) and Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) and spoke to Het Nieuwblad (opens in new tab) after the race: "In the beginning I didn't have a good feeling because of the heat, but that was improved by cooling myself with water.
"When Mathieu [van der Poel] came to us, he said he was not good. At first I thought he was joking, but he wasn't.
"Then we decided to start riding, because Jasper [Philipsen] was also in the front with too many fast men. From then on it was tunnel vision, and we hoped we were going to get him back. First the other teams came to help a bit, but then the support was somewhat gone. We ended up short on those today.
"The heat played a very big role. I know that I have a lot of trouble with that, but apparently other riders too. Everyone was complaining. I don't think we should draw too many conclusions from it. On Sunday it will be 10 degrees cooler and the situation will be different."
The race was full-on from the start with only three riders managing to make the break, but they were caught with around 55km to go, moments later the winning move was made by Van Baarle and it was a fight for the minor places behind.
Van der Poel, who has won four times this season, was hardly ever near the front apart from one small move from the peloton which led to the forming of the chasing group that included Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r-Citroën) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo).
The Dutch champion did play a part in who got the podium places though thanks to one last big turn that he put in with just over a kilometre to go to pull back the Van Avermaet group, before finally getting dropped out of the back for good a few hundred metres later.
Other big names that seemed to either take it easy or suffer were world champion Julian Alaphilippe, Kasper Asgreen (both Deceuninck - Quick-Step), Tom Pidcock (opens in new tab) (Ineos Grenadiers), and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ).
The next big race for him is the Tour of Flanders on Sunday where he will hope to be back to his usual powerful self on the bike.
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