Wout Poels (36) has been part of the peloton’s furniture for years. He was a master servant of Tour winners for many years. 2023 was an emotional year in several ways for the Bahrain Victorious rider. In the Tour de France he won a stage in a Grand Tour for the first time. He immediately did that again in the Vuelta. But there was also the death of teammate Gino Mäder. He looks back in his hometown of Monaco.
The Tour victory
“It wasn’t that I was already thinking that morning of the fifteenth Tour stage; I feel good and this one is for me. On the contrary. I had gone very deep the day before, so I didn’t know at the start whether I would be able to attempt a stage win. That decision was only made during the race, when we arrived at the first climb with a fairly large leading group. Marc Soler drove away from us, I dared to let him go. But when Wout van Aert also rode away, I knew: oh, now I really have to join if I ever want to win that stage. So I went.
I have to be honest: if that overtake had taken another hundred meters longer, I would not have succeeded. I really only just came to it. Those are those moments during the race when you think: wow, now I took off a jacket, maybe it was too much. But fortunately I often recover quickly and the other person is often just as deeply affected. At first there were four of us in the lead, but because Krists Neilands fell and Soler descended very badly, only Van Aert and I were still in the lead.
Van Aert was going really fast, but I knew: I didn’t have to let go. I felt strong. I was counting on the bike. If I ever wanted to beat him, my only chance was to ride him off on the steep part in the penultimate climb. I already knew that piece from a prologue during the Dauphiné. I rode well there then too. However, from there it was still eleven kilometers to the finish, so that was not ideal. Ultimately I made the decision to sprint away in a split second. I thought: I’ll just go and see where the ship ends up. After I drove away, I immediately had doubts. Shit, this was too early, I thought.
I quickly gained a lead of fifteen or twenty seconds, but then it went extremely slowly to a minute. And it was Wout van Aert who was on my neck. But at some point I got into the zone a bit. I heard in my ear that I was gaining more and more lead, when I looked back and didn’t see him anymore, it gave me wings. And it is also such a euphoric feeling to cycle through such a crowd of people as a front runner. But I wasn’t sure of anything at all. Of course I saw the wattages I was pedaling and I knew it was quite difficult to get to me.
But perhaps Van Aert held back for a while to catch up in the last five kilometers? And I didn’t even know what was happening behind me in the race, I thought: you just saw that Tadej Pogacar or Jonas Vingegaard are having a great day. I couldn’t hear my earpiece properly because of all the supporters, the last thing I heard was a 1 minute 20 lead. It wasn’t until the very last left turn that I knew for sure that I would win. Then comes that line and the discharge. I was so happy, I had finally managed to win a Tour stage. I could not believe it.”
“My whole career flashed by when I crossed the finish line. It was literally a dream come true at that moment. When you are young and you start cycling, the first thing you come into contact with in terms of cycling is the Tour. You hear about it on the radio, see it on TV and watch The Evening Stage with your parents. It starts with the dream of one day being able to participate in the Tour, but when you get to that point, that ambition grows and you dream about how great it would be to one day win a stage there.
‘The fact that I also beat Van Aert in the Tour stage made it a perfect scenario. A bit like winning a World Cup by beating Argentina in the final’
For me as a climber, winning a mountain stage was the ultimate. Of course I would have loved every Tour ride. But the fact that I was ultimately able to win a long stage with a lot of altitude meters made it extra special. And the fact that I also defeated Wout van Aert made it a perfect scenario. A bit like winning a World Cup by beating Argentina in the final.”
“Previously the closest I came to a victory was the 2016 Tour. It was a stage with the same finish as where I won now. I then rode for Team Sky, as Chris Froome’s servant. Chris rode in yellow and we rode at the front that day with quite a few people from our team. I heard Chris say to the team leader via the team radio: ‘If we get to the final climb and Wout feels good, then he should go for the stage win today.’ The team management replied that they would rather not take that risk, but Chris protested. He thought we were safe, with so many Sky men up front.
I was ready and felt really strong that day. But then it started to rain, there were falls and Chris also fell, so logically I had to stay with him. Geraint Thomas then handed over his bike to Chris and I kind of guided him up so that he wouldn’t lose much time. Of course I felt bad about it, but I wasn’t devastated. Moreover, I could also genuinely enjoy what I had meant to Chris that day.
The first part of the story of Wout Poels comes from the double end-of-year issue of Helden. The last edition of 2023 is traditionally dedicated to a look back on the past sporting year, on which Femke Bol decorates the cover. The athlete looks back in detail on the year in which everything she touched seemed to turn into gold.
Helden also visited England Nathan Ake, who won the league title, FA Cup and Champions League with Manchester City. He was interviewed and photographed together with his wife Kaylee, with whom he has been together since he was fifteen. The visit to the Schippers family. Dafne said goodbye to athletics and together with her parents, sister and brother she looked back on her impressive career.
In the 69ste edition of Heroes, numerous athletes who gave color to 2023 will have their say. Golden Sisters Bente and Lieke Rogge became world water polo champions together. Femke Kok crowned herself the first Dutch world champion in the 500 meters and shows herself in a way we have never seen her before. Karolien and Finn Florijn are blessed with great rowing genes, they both won World Cup gold; a double interview. Jeffrey Hoogland is king of the kilometer. He became world champion at ‘his’ distance for the fourth time and improved the world record. A candid conversation with the mileage eater.
Sailors packed further Bart Lambriex and Floris van de Werken a hat-trick of world titles. Speaking of sailing: Marit Bouwmeester returned after giving birth to her daughter in 2022 and immediately became European champion again. Feyenoord also became champions Lutsharel Geertruida had an important part in this. He tells his story. Joey Veerman won the KNVB Cup in 2023 and became a father. A conversation with the outspoken footballer about whom many people have an opinion.
Also a story about it Lionel Messi and the club he moved to last summer, David Beckham’s Inter Miami. A portrait of Carlos Alcarazthe new poster boy of tennis who beat Novak Djokovic in the final at Wimbledon in the match of the year. And finally it was for skating coach Kosta Poltavets and football coach Anoush Dastgir a difficult year, due to the situation in their native countries, Ukraine and Afghanistan.
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