For some years now, Dutch cycling sensation Mathieu van der Poel has demonstrated some of the classic hallmarks of the human species. He has a couple of pairs of arms and legs, for example; a face with some eyes, a nose and a mouth; even an Instagram account.
All strong identifiers of a modern Homo Sapiens.
And yet we watch him race his bike, ferocious and relentless, apparently devoid of emotion or fallibility, and we wonder: Is he more machine than man? More cyborg than bloke?
On Stage 5 of Tirreno-Adriatico, the recent early season multi-stage jaunt across Italy, we got our answer.
Van der Poel, as a multiple cyclo-cross world champion and classics winning road rider, usually competes without so much as a whiff of weakness. Even when beaten, all outward signs – facial expression, body language – are unchanged.
For his competitors, the worst days on the bike can deliver a soul-crushing existential exhaustion. For Van der Poel, it seems his occasional bad day involves not so much physical collapse a software issue. A glitch. Does not compute?!
But the aforementioned Stage 5, and the race towards the town of Castelfidardo, was different.
Cold and wet, he attacked alone with fifty kilometres to go. A bold move on a hilly course. Bold, of course, being a euphemism for suicidal; because modern bike racing doesn’t work like this. Fifty K solo attackers don’t win.
Philippe Gilbert, in 2017, being the exception to prove the rule.
The Dutchman explained later that he was cold, and so launched down the road like a 1969 vintage Eddy Merckx simply to warm himself up. For a while it went brilliantly.
Inhaling the kilometres, up hill and down dale, with fifteen to go he had a three-minute gap on the snorting, galloping Tour de France champ Tadej Pogacar in pursuit. Presumably the Slovenian was cold too.
By this point the unthinkable (the 50K solo win) had become the inevitable. It was to be another ridiculous, rule-book ripping chapter in the young career of this bionic man.
But then came the slow reveal of Mathieu van der Poel: actual human man.Embed from Getty Images
The time gap between he and Pogacar began to tumble. Slowly at first, and then alarmingly so. A three-minute gap at fifteen kilometres became two at ten. Van der Poel began to rock and roll. The shoulders arched and wrangling. Sinews visibly strained. A grimace.
He found an energy bar in his pocket and wolfed half down, dropping the rest in the gutter. He drained his drinks bottle, cradling it between slugs like as swirling glass of brandy beside a roaring fire. Dwelling on the moment. The mind tiring. No longer looking like a droid but like someone less super and more normal.
Vulnerable, dare I say?
Tadej Pogacar barrelling on behind.
Five kilometres to go and the gap is below a minute. Two kilometres to go and Pogacar is gaining. Van der Poel is ragged now, the win entirely in the balance. Seven hundred metres to go and the gap is visual. Pogacar has appeared in the background.
He might catch him.Embed from Getty Images
One final crest. At the end of his tether. And then the finish. Unable to raise his arms the Dutchman coasts, lopsided, barely upright. This is not the knowing arms-crossed-who’s-the-daddy salute of Stage 3. He rolls to the post-finish barrier to half-fall from his bike, collapsing on the cold, wet asphalt.
Hunched under a towel, can of Coke to hand, a team carer gives him a Covid-safe ‘cuddle’ and now we know this guy. He’s one of us. Exhausted. Relatable.
One of the very best examples, the physical pinnacle of the species, but a human being after all.
(Top Image: Lieven De Cock (Digital Clickx), CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)