Outside the GC showdown on the cobbles, Wednesday’s fifth stage of the Tour de France was also set to bring that rare opportunity to see the Classics stars do battle outside of their usual spring domain.
The likes of Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) were expected to do battle on the 157 kilometers from Lille to Arenberg, but things didn’t quite play out that way. On the day, Van der Poel was dropped from the lead group 38km from the finish, while Van Aert was called into action to help his GC leader Jonas Vingegaard.
There were plenty of incidents to reflect on, but the outcome of Van der Poel’s day was perhaps the most surprising, even if he did say on the morning of the stage that he has been feeling unwell for several days.
“I haven’t been feeling very well for a few days, actually,” he told NOS in Lille. “Yesterday it became painfully clear that I don’t have the legs I hoped for. It will have to be a lot better than yesterday to participate for the win.”
Over the following hours, that shape didn’t come for the Dutchman, who later punctured to drop out of Van Aert’s chase group, ending up in 81st place, 3:48 down on stage winner Simon Clarke.
“It’s not really positive. Instead of a better day I was even worse today,” Van der Poel reflected after the stage. “I’m a shadow of myself at the moment and it’s frustrating. I have no idea what it is. I’m not really up to speed at the moment.
“In the stages in Denmark I didn’t notice it yet, but I already felt I wasn’t racing with a surplus. When they start racing hard, I’m really on the limit.”
Van der Poel started his race with a positive result in Copenhagen, taking fifth in the time trial, even if he thought that, too, was below his level. He headed to the Tour after a month away from racing following his Giro d’Italia debut, where he completed a Grand Tour for the first time.
“I hoped for a slightly better day,” he said. “But I quickly felt that the weather wasn’t changing. I haven’t had the legs I have desired since the time trial. I hope they will come – otherwise it will be a long tour.
“It was good in the Giro but also not outstanding. The run-up to the Tour wasn’t very good either, apart from the last week before the Tour. That was positive again, but before that it wasn’t the case either. .”
On paper, Thursday’s stage 6 through the hills of the southern Ardennes near the Belgian border would normally suit Van der Poel. However, it looks as though he and the Tour will have to wait until later in the race for him to ride himself into better form.
“For a while now, I haven’t reached the level I want to reach. The only perspective now is to continue and then hope it will be better later on.”