MUR DE BRETAGNE, France, June 27 (Reuters) - French cycling great Raymond Poulidor used to call his grandson Mathieu van der Poel his “little phenomenon” - and the young Dutchman lived up to that label on Sunday when he achieved his Tour de France dream by claiming the yellow jersey.
At 26, Van der Poel is already a four-time cyclocross world champion and has won one of the five “Monument” road-racing classics at the Tour of Flanders.
But wearing the Tour’s yellow jersey on his race debut will certainly be the sweetest of all his achievements as Poulidor, often seen as France’s most popular cyclist, never managed to wear the coveted shirt despite coming close several times in 14 appearances in the race.
Poulidor, who also debuted on the Tour at 26, died in November 2019 and Van der Poel cried as he regretted that he could not pose with his grandfather with the famed “Maillot Jaune” on his shoulders.
“Imagine if he was here how proud he would have been. Unfortunately, he isn’t here anymore to see,” Van der Poel said.
His lean 1.84m, 75kg frame means the young rider doesn’t have much chance of winning the Tour - unlike Poulidor who ended up on the podium an incredible eight times - but the profile of the first two stages this year suited him perfectly with a short but brutal uphill finish.
His Alpecin-Fenix team, sensing the hype, designed a special yellow and purple jersey reminiscent of Poulidor’s Mercier team shirt for the team presentation, and the riders were allowed to wear it on the opening stage.
That may have proved too much of a burden for Van der Poel, who found himself too far back in the peloton when they tackled the final climb on Saturday. Instead, world champion Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe took the stage and the overall lead.
TOKYO IN SIGHT
Alaphilippe had an eight-second lead on Van der Poel going into Sunday’s stage - a sizeable advantage at this level and defendable given that the final ascent on Day Two was only two kilometres long.
But there was also an eight-second bonus up for grabs at the top of the first of the two ascents to Mur de Bretagne.
Van der Poel, whose father Adrie wore the yellow jersey for a day in the 1984 edition of the race, attacked on the first circuit and picked them up, risking burning up too much fuel for the final effort.
Nevertheless, as the riders came up for the final ascent, he powered away 700 metres from the line and never looked back, raising a finger in the air as he crossed the line.
“I gambled a little bit and I played everything I got the first time already,” he said.
“I knew I had to get bonus seconds if I wanted the yellow jersey, and I knew it was the last chance to get the yellow jersey. It’s incredible.”
Van der Poel, whose mother Corinne - Poulidor’s daughter - arrived at the race on Sunday, will now try to finish his first Tour.
But he will need to spare himself as he also has another dream to fulfil: becoming the Olympic mountain-biking champion in Tokyo, where he will start as the overwhelming favourite. (Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Hugh Lawson)