By Martyn Herman
HARROGATE, England (Reuters) – A convoy of Dutch-registered campervans lines one of the leafy roads leading into Harrogate and stencilled in white paint on the wet tarmac is the face of Mathieu Van der Poel.
Actually, the image proclaiming “King Mathieu” is repeated every few meters along a 200m stretch of road colonized by some of the army of Dutch fans who have crossed the North Sea for the UCI Road World Championships.
The locals in the well-to-do Yorkshire spa town might not appreciate the freshly-painted graffiti, but come Sunday they might know a little more about Van der Poel.
The 24-year-old is tipped to become the first Dutchman to win the road race since Joop Zoetemelk in 1985.
To end that wait he must negotiate a treacherous 280km route in predicted brutal weather and beat a quality field featuring three-time world champion Slovak Peter Sagan, Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe and any number of Classics specialists.
Incredibly, if he triumphs it would not even be the first time he has pulled on the rainbow jersey this year.
He won the his second world title in cyclo-cross, his specialist event, in Denmark. Next year at the Tokyo Olympics he will go for gold in the mountain bike race.
“It keeps it fun,” the all-rounder said. “Put me on the road bike all summer and I’ll get bored.”
It is rare to compete across the cycling disciplines, yet when he has got on the road bike he has been almost unstoppable.
An awe-inspiring victory at the Amstel Gold, when he chased down Alaphillipe and Jakob Fuglsang alone, sent shockwaves around the peloton. He also won the Dwars door Vlaanderen, the Brabantse Pijl, was fourth in Tour of Flanders and this month won three stages and the overall title at the Tour of Britain.
No wonder he has taken the spotlight from Sagan in Harrogate and why the Dutch are so excited, especially as Sunday’s route, starting in Leeds and ending with seven laps of a technical and hilly 14km circuit of Harrogate, looks tailor-made for a rider whose father Adri won six one-day Classics.
He spent more than an hour fielding questions from Dutch TV crews at the team’s Swan Hotel on Friday — the place where crime writer Agatha Christie hid out for 11 days in 1926.
It is no mystery that Van der Poel will be a marked man on Sunday but he remains remarkably calm despite the hype.
“I think I’m amongst the favorites, maybe to put me as the main favorite is a little too much but I’m definitely one of the guys who can win the race,” he told reporters.
“It’s been a really nice year for me, it was the first time I did the Classics and it went beyond expectations.”
Sunday’s race distance should be no problem for Van der Poel as the Amstel Gold was 267km and he said the ‘grippy’ Yorkshire roads hold no fear either. The weather, predicted to be cold and wet, could blow the race wide open though.
“There are lots of riders who can win with the weather that is predicted, but I don’t think it will be a pure sprinter because they won’t survive until the finish.
“It’s going to be a Classics guy, or maybe a climber. It’s going to be a nervous and difficult race.”
Van der Poel leads a vanguard of fearless young riders which also includes Belgian teenager Remco Evenepoel and Slovenian Tadej Pogacar.
“Evenepoel won San Sebastian, if he did that he can win here too,” Van der Poel said. “He will be there.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris)