Van der Poel makes history on Flanders cobblestones. GETTY IMAGES

The Dutchman rode to victory in the rain at the Tour of Flanders and now has three victories on the cobbles to add to his tally of six. Along with Pogacar, he now has five monuments to his name - the two riders with the most victories in the race, a far cry from Eddy Merckx's 19.

As Mathieu van der Poel crossed the line at the Tour of Flanders, he said: "It was the toughest race of my life. With 245 kilometres in the legs and covered in mud and mud. The essence of the northern classics." Coming from someone like him, this quote means a lot.

Born in Belgium, he made history on Sunday by joining a select group of six riders to have won the Tour of Flanders three times in its 111-year history. He finished just over a minute ahead of Italy's Luca Mozzato, who beat Australian Michael Matthews. However, Matthews was penalised for a dangerous sprint and it was Germany's Nils Politt who finished third. 

"To win the Tour of Flanders with the rainbow jersey of world champion on my back is a dream come true," said Van der Poel. No one had done it since Peter Sagan in 2016. "I was dead for the last few kilometres, but I closed my eyes and kept pushing the pedals," explained Van der Poel, who once again excelled on the cobbles," he added.

No one has ever won cycling's oldest 'monument' four times. The last man to complete a hat-trick was Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara in 2014. Van der Poel's previous triumphs came in 2020 and 2022.

Van der Poel didn't get off his bike. All his rivals did. GETTY IMAGES
Van der Poel didn't get off his bike. All his rivals did. GETTY IMAGES

Wout Van Aert and Tadej Pogacar were missed by Van der Poel, and probably by the spectators and the race itself. The former broke his collarbone and ribs in the Tour of Flanders four days earlier. Defending champion Tadej Pogacar will skip the spring classics in favour of a Giro d'Italia and Tour de France double.

Van der Poel's is making an era. He won as the clear favourite. All eyes were on him. This monumental race is one of the most demanding and treacherous on the calendar, with 270 kilometres and 18 cobbled climbs. 

This year the grey skies and rain brought back the essence of this race, which recalls the great battles of the last century, when riders like Eddy Merckx or Roger de Vlaeminck, who handled the stones as if they were their own, left spectators at the roadside in awe. 

However Flanders has something special, just as the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix will have in a few days' time. It's not easy to be a ciclist there. Some greats like Fausto Coppi won everything but couldn't tame the cobbles. It's not easy for grand tour riders to win on the stone monuments, even in modern cycling. In fact, it is still hard to believe that Pogacar won Flanders.

Van der Poel crushed his rivals with 50km to go. GETTY IMAGES
Van der Poel crushed his rivals with 50km to go. GETTY IMAGES

On Sunday, Van der Poel's rivals tried to surprise him with a long attack, just like Mads Pedersen, who beat Van der Poel in Ghent-Wevelgem last week. Van der Poel caught the Dane on the climb to the Oude Kwaremont with 55km to go and that's when his performance began. 

On the Oude Kwaremont, where the mud was as thick as it was on the Kloppenberg, the Dutchman continued to ride and crushed his rivals. And that's because Van der Poel, a six-time cyclocross world champion, is comfortable in such difficult weather and conditions for a cyclist. With 30km to go, he had a 1'25" lead over a chasing group of seven riders who were beginning to argue about who would take second and third place.

Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel is a far cry from Belgian myth Eddy Merckx, but with 19 victories in the five major one-day races on the calendar, he is the rider destined to approach the greatest cyclist in history. Nobody can match the sprinting ability of this beast. 

Last year he was world road champion and world cyclocross champion, something that very few cyclists manage. He has won monuments, world championships and stages in the grand tours. 

His palmares are full. Perhaps that's why he has a new race on his agenda for this year: Paris 2024. For a rider who knows no limits, Olympic gold could be another goal. 

His story is one that has been told on all sides of cycling. When he wears the yellow jersey at the 2021 Tour de France, one image will remain in everyone's mind: that of his grandfather, Raymond Poulidor. The eternal 'second'. The sixties rider who never won the Tour de France or many other races, along with Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil. He was always there, but always behind them. 

He finished on the podium eight times, but never took the lead and never wore the yellow jersey. His grandson did it in 2021 and paid him a tribute that is still remembered today. Since then, Van der Poel's story has surpassed that of his grandfather. 

Van der Poel has done it all and now he wants to make more history. It is not out of the question that he will compete in both road and mountain bike events in Paris 2024.

Eddy Merckx, the greatest of all time, leads the way with 19 monuments. GETTY IMAGES
Eddy Merckx, the greatest of all time, leads the way with 19 monuments. GETTY IMAGES

Palmarès for winning the most monuments:

-Eddy Merckx (Belgium): 19, from 1966 to 1976 (7 Milan-San Remo, 5 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 3 Paris-Roubaix, 2 Tour of Flanders, 2 Giro di Lombardia).

-Roger de Vlaeminck (Belgium): 11, from 1970 to 1979 (3 Milan-San Remo, 4 Paris-Roubaix, 2 Giro di Lombardia, 1 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 1 Tour of Flanders).

-Costante Girardengo (Italy): 9, from 1918 to 1928 (6 Milan-San Remo, 3 Giro di Lombardia). 

-Fausto Coppi (Italy): 9, from 1946 to 1954 (5 Giro di Lombardia, 3 Milan-San Remo, 1 Paris-Roubaix). 

-Sean Kelly (Ireland): 9, from 1983 to 1992 (3 Giro di Lombardia, 2 Milan-San Remo, 2 Paris-Roubaix, 2 Liège-Bastogne-Liège).

-Rick Van Looy (Belgium): 8, from 1958 to 1965 (3 Paris-Roubaix, 2 Tour of Flanders, 1 Milan-San Remo, 1 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 1 Giro di Lombardia).

-Gino Bartali (Italy): 7, from 1936 to 1950 (4 Milan-San Remo, 3 Giro di Lombardia). 

-Tom Boonen (Belgium): 7, from 2004 to 2012 (4 Paris-Roubaix, 3 Tour of Flanders). 

-Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland): 7, from 2006 to 2014 (3 Tour of Flanders, 3 Paris-Roubaix, 1 Milan-San Remo 2008).

-Bernard Hinault (France): 5 from 1977 to 1984) (2 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 2 Giro di Lombardia, 1 Paris-Roubaix).

-Tadej Pogacar (Slovenia, 25 years old): 5, since 2021 (3 Giro di Lombardia, 1 Tour of Flanders, 1 Liège-Bastogne-Liège).

-Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands, 29): 5, since 2020 (3 Tour of Flanders, 1 Milan-San Remo, 1 Paris-Roubaix).

Italian rider Elisa Longo Borghini has won the women's Tour of Flanders. The 32-year-old Italian, who also won the Ronde in 2015 and rides for the Lidl-Trek team, beat Poland's Katarzyna Niewiadoma and Dutch teammate Shirin van Anrooij in a sprint finish. 

As with the men's race, much of the action took place on the waterlogged cobbles of the Koppenberg. Several favourites crashed, including Belgian Lotte Kopecky, who was forced to dismount.