The 2023 cobbled Classics began in much the same way as the 2022 spring campaign ended: with Dylan van Baarle soloing to victory. Just as he did at Paris-Roubaix last April, the Dutchman attacked early to gain a head-start over the other favourites, and wound up reaching the finishing straight alone with time to celebrate.
Arnaud De Lie (Lotto-Dstny) won the sprint in the reduced peloton some 20 seconds behind to place second, having impressed throughout the race, while Christophe Laporte put the cherry on top of what was a superb race for Jumbo-Visma by rounding off the podium in third.
Is Van Baarle currently the best Classics rider in the peloton?
He might not boast the star status of Wout van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel, but should we be talking about Dylan van Baarle as the best cobbled Classics rider in the world?
His results since autumn 2021 speak for themselves. After catching Tadej Pogačar in the closing stages of the 2022 Tour of Flanders to take second place, he proved categorically that that result was no fluke by winning Paris-Roubaix the week after with an astonishing display of strength, and by the huge margin of one minute and 47 seconds. Both Van Aert and Van der Poel lay well adrift, the former despite chasing hard, and the latter looking well out of sorts.
Add to that his silver medal at the 2021 World Championships, and no rider besides Pogačar has a better record in the very biggest one-day races over the last eighteen months as Van Baarle.
He wins in style, too, and his victory today came from what has become his trademark of long-range, stealthy, solo attacks. At first he was part of a four-man group featuring Florian Vermeersch (Lotto-Dstny), Mathis Le Berre (Arkéa Samsic) and Jonathan Milan (Bahrain-Victorious) that went clear about 40km from the finish, but he shed each rider one-by-one, before he was all alone. From then he kept motoring along, and not even the powerful attacks made on the Muur by the other pre-race favourites were enough to bring him back into sight.
Granted, neither Van Aert nor Van der Poel were racing today, so his fate may have been very different were they not missing. But if he continues riding like this, then he’ll have surely earned a co-leadership status alongside Van Aert at Jumbo-Visma, rather than a supplementary role.
Jumbo-Visma are the new cobbled patrons
Just as they overthrew Ineos Grenadiers as the best Grand Tour team in the peloton, now Jumbo-Visma appear to be outgunning Soudal-Quick Step on the Belgian team’s home territory of the cobblestones.
The yellow-clad Dutch squad were easily the strongest today. It was them who burst the race into life in the early stages when they upped the pace to cause a dangerous split in the peloton. It was them who had the most numbers in a dangerous six-man counter-attack that formed in the aftermath of that attack, courtesy of Jan Tratnik and Nathan Van Hooydonck. And it was the collective effort of Van Baarle and Laporte that saw the former first break clear in what turned out to be the race-winning move.
Crucially, the team also had significant numbers in the chase that formed behind Van Baarle’s group, with Tiesj Benoot joining Laporte, Tratnik and Van Hooydonck all present. By comparison, Soudal-QuickStep were notably underrepresented, with star men Yves Lampaert and Florian Sénéchal missing in action, and the ever-dependable Tim Declercq abandoning after a crash.
When the attacks were made and a select chasing group formed on the Muur, Christophe Laporte was able to latch onto them, ensuring that the team was covered even if Van Baarle was brought back. And no point in the race therefore did it not seem that Jumbo-Visma were frontrunners to take the victory.
Laporte was one the team's signings of the 2022 season, and now Van Baarle looks like he might be one of the signings of this season. When you consider that Wout van Aert is yet to be added to this classics line-up, Jumbo-Visma might be unstoppable this spring.
De Lie confirms talent
There was a great deal of hype surrounding Arnaud De Lie prior to the race, and his performance during what was a debut Omloop Het Nieuwsblad did nothing to temper the excitement.
Despite coming up against the kind of misfortune and stress that can derail a rider’s chances in a classic, including a crash early on, the 20-year-old was undeterred, and hugely impressed to finish second.
In the peloton, he was the third man to crest the top of the Muur behind Tim Wellens (UAE Team Emirates) and Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Victorious), and with those riders, De Lie chased hard in the finale. And despite all the effort used up doing so, and despite this group being brought back by the peloton on the finishing straight, he still had enough left to kick for second place in the sprint against the fresher riders in the peloton.
Comparisons with his compatriot Tom Boonen will only intensify, as he continues to prove that he’s not just a quick sprinter, but also a very capable rouleur over the cobbles. He’ll be a hot favourite for all of the classics to come, especially the more sprinter-friendly ones — starting with tomorrow’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
Best of the rest
Given the way the race behind Van Baarle all came back together before the finish, with a peloton of 25 all finishing together, the riders’ positions at the top of the Muur might be a better indication of form than their results at the finish, in which sense Tim Wellens and Matej Mohorič are flying right now. Wellens appears to be enjoying a new lease of life with his new team UAE Team Emirates, having already registered his first win at the Ruta del Sol a week ago, while Mohorič appears to be coming into form ahead of his Milan-San Remo title defence.
Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) and Rasmus Tiller (Uno-X) didn’t quite manage to join the chase group formed by Mohorič, Wellens and De Lie, but weren’t too far behind, suggesting they are also likely to once again be major players in this spring’s campaign.
Kudos also must go to Rasmus’ teammate Alexander Kristoff, who survived in the reduced peloton and sprinted for fourth-place at the finish. While riders younger than him are preparing to retire, the 35-year-old remains as hungry as ever, and this was his highest ever finish at what was his tenth Omloop het Nieuwsblad. (Incidentally, Peter Sagan languished down in 117th, his lowest ever Het Nieuwsblad finish).
And on the other end of the age spectrum, Arkea-Samsic's 21-year-old Le Berre seriously impressed by being the last man to stay with Van Baarle, despite having used up more energy earlier in the day having been part of the original breakaway. The Frenchman looks like he could be a major talent.