OUDENAARDDE: Dutch rider Mathieu van der Poel won a battle of nerves with Tadej Pogacar to claim the 273km-long Tour of Flanders raced over cobbled hills on Sunday (Apr 3).
The pair broke away with 20km to go before playing cat-and-mouse over the final kilometre, allowing Ineos rider Dylan van Baarle and FDJ's Valentin Madouas to steal in for second and third at the line.
A furious Pogacar came fourth as the two-time Tour de France winner for once played his cards wrong.
As the chasers caught the pair metres from the line the 23-year-old Slovenian sat up and waved his arms suggesting he was boxed in, and swiftly left the finish line area.
Van der Poel had signalled his intent prior to Sunday by winning the Round Flanders race in midweek to prove his Olympic mountain bike crash injuries were behind him.
Team UAE leader Pogacar made the key break on the penultimate of 18 cobbled climbs 20km from home in what is Belgium's biggest one day race.
Only Van der Poel was able to follow as they opened up a 50sec gap on a small group of followers.
The slimline Pogacar again attacked on the last climb as the stocky Van der Poel showed deep resilience by clinging on and gambling all on his bulk to win the sprint.
"I nearly cracked on the Paterberg (the last climb)," Van der Poel admitted.
"It's a shame that Pogacar didn't get on the podium, he was the best out there today," said the Dutchman who is the grandson of legendary French rider Raymond Poulidor.
The Tour of Flanders is one of the five cycling monuments, the ultra-long one day races which includes Milan San-Remo, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy.
Van der Poel won the Tour of Flanders in 2020 before coming runner-up behind Kasper Asgreen last season.
Second in last year's world road racing championships, contested on a similar route, Van Baarle came close to pipping his countryman Van der Poel on the line, dropping his head in disappointment after coming within a whisker.