MUR-DE-BRETAGNE, France (AP) — What his grandfather failed to do in 14 editions of the Tour de France, Mathieu van der Poel achieved at his first attempt.
The Tour debutant pointed a finger toward the sky in memory of his grandfather, Raymond Poulidor, as he crossed the finish line of the second stage at cycling’s biggest race on Sunday to snatch the coveted yellow jersey.
“It’s a shame he is not here, but what can I do,” the 26-year-old Van der Poel said about Poulidor, while holding back tears after his maiden Tour stage win following a blazing attack.
Poulidor, who died in November 2019, took part in 14 Tours from 1962-76, finishing in second place overall three times and third five times. Nicknamed “Poupou” and “The Eternal Runner-up,” Poulidor was adored by French fans but could never win the famed yellow tunic worn by the race leader after each stage.
“I imagine how proud he would be,” said Van der Poel, whose father, Adri, was also a professional cyclist and wore the yellow jersey for one day in 1984.
Van der Poel jumped out of the group of favorites in the 2-kilometer climb leading to Mur-de-Bretagne, where the finish was set. The Dutchman used his greater power with 700 meters left to drop all the main contenders in the long stretch of road.
Defending champion Tadej Pogacar was next across the line, six seconds back, and Primoz Roglic completed the stage podium.
“I knew today was my last chance to take the jersey, it’s incredible to succeed,” Van der Poel said.
A versatile rider, Van der Poel has won titles in many disciplines and plans to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in mountain bike. A quadruple cyclocross world champion, he also won the Strade Bianche earlier this year and the prestigious Tour of Flanders last year.
The powerfully built Van der Poel, however, is not among the main contenders at the Tour due to the high mountain and time-trialing elements of the race.
Sunday’s 183.5-kilometer (114-mile) route from Perros-Guirec did not feature a major difficulty until the finishing loop, including the iconic Mur-de-Bretagne ascent. Called the “Alpe d’Huez of Brittany” by the cycling-crazed Bretons because of its steep gradient, the climb was tackled twice Sunday and the finish line was set up at the top.
Van der Poel produced his first effort in the opening ascent to cross first at the summit and seize a time bonus of eight seconds that helped him claim the yellow jersey.
World champion Julian Alaphilippe, who had led after the first stage, ended the stage in fifth place.
“Yesterday he was disappointed not to win and came to see me to me to say he was happy for me,” Alaphilippe said. “Today it’s the same, we compete against each other throughout the year, we both like to attack. I’m very happy for him, he deserves it.”
Thanks to the time bonus, Van der Poel has an eight-second lead over Alaphilippe in the general classification. Pogacar is in third place, 13 seconds off the pace.
Among the top contenders, former Tour champion Geraint Thomas was unable to follow Van der Poel’s pace and dropped to 20th overall, 41 seconds back.
After a brutal Saturday marred by two massive pile-ups that saw dozens of riders hit the ground, the peloton was happy to let a breakaway form in the early stages.
Along the stunning rocky coastline of the Cote de Granit Rose, Alaphilippe chatted with rivals at the front of the pack as Anthony Perez, Edward Theuns, Simon Clarke, Jonas Koch, Ide Schelling and Jeremy Cabot opened a gap of about four minutes.
Tony Martin, the German veteran rider who was hit by a placard being held by a spectator on the side of the road during the opening stage, rode with bandages on his left arm and left leg but gave a thumbs-up and smiled to TV cameras.
Tour organizers have started legal action following the crash and French police are trying to trace the spectator who caused the accident.
Theuns tried a solo effort with 70 kilometers left and was joined by Cabot as the leading group broke apart in the Cote de Saint-Brieux. With all the main contenders looking to come through the double ascent of the Mur-de-Bretagne unscathed, the peloton accelerated the pace — first to catch the remaining breakaway riders, then to get their leaders in good positions at the foot of the hill before the final battle started for the stage win.
The peloton will remain in Brittany for Monday’s third stage, a flat 182.9-kilometer (113.6-mile) trek between Lorient and Pontivy which is tailor-made for sprinters.
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