This year has so far seen some of the best early season racing we could hope for, and past week continued the trend.
E3 Saxo Bank Classic
Entering E3, Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel were the heavy duel-favourites.
However, it was the cobble kings Deceuninck-Quick-Step who lit up the race on the Taaienberg with 79km still remaining. Here, they gained a numerical advantage and sent Kasper Asgreen on the attack. From this point, DQS could simply follow any attacks in the chasing groups with Zdeněk Štybar and Florian Sénéchal on duty.
The Tiegemberg arrived with 20km to go and Wout Van Aert attacked. He’d immediately regret this decision as he clearly didn’t have the legs to follow-through with his move. As WVA peeled away, Van der Poel continued over the top of Van Aert where he was followed by two DQS riders, two AG2R riders and Dylan Van Baarle.
Asgreen would finally be caught in the flat run-in to the line and after being alone for over 60km, the Danish Champion was allowed to sit on the back of the group. With three riders in the front group of now seven riders, the team still had options.
They’d only need to play one more hand in the end. Asgreen attacked with 5km left and without an immediate reaction from the others he gained over 30 seconds by the time he’d cross the finish line, with his teammate Florian Sénéchal sprinting to second making it a 1-2. Another tactical masterclass from DQS.
How Deceuninck Quick Step Win the Tour of Flanders
"How do you beat Mathieu Van der Poel and Wout Van Aert?"
It’s a question that has been thrown around a lot recently, particularly after the duo dominated the Tour of Flanders last year. Well, Deceuninck-Quick-Step have the answer. The team have so much strength in depth when it comes to cobble classics, and when they play their cards correctly they are almost impossible to beat. Even for Van Aert and Van der Poel.
For the entirety of the final 80km, Deceuninck were always in control. Asgreen led for the majority meaning his teammates needn't work and only needed to focus on following any attacks. Even when Asgreen was caught, the team had three of the seven riders at the front, giving them options to attack or work for a sprint.
Wout Van Aert did puncture early on which required a big effort from him and his teammates to bring him back to the front. This may have contributed to him being dropped later on. However, the cyclo-cross stars were forced to work hard throughout and provide the main impetus to bring back Asgreen — Van Aert never reaching him.
The question now is how much have Van Aert and Van der Poel learnt ahead of the Tour of Flanders next weekend and how can they adapt their strategy to counter the strength in depth that Deceuninck-Quick Step possess?
Fine Tuning for AG2R
Image credit: KBLB
AG2R Citroen turned their focus to the classics this season when they signed Greg Van Avermaet who would link up with Oliver Naesen, the team’s long-term leader in the classics. The additions of Michael Schär, Gijs Van Hoecke and Stan Dewulf further strengthened in this department.
It all seemed to be coming together, too. Both Naesen and GVA had made the final selection and with 10km to go, the squad had two riders in the front group of seven — only outnumbered by Deceuninck. Naesen and GVA have their similarities. They are both strong on cobbles and fairly quick in a sprint, although they’re always going to find it difficult vs. Van der Poel and the ever-improving Florian Sénéchal.
After Asgreen attacked, neither GVA nor Naesen followed, whether this was by choice or simply because they didn’t have the fuel in the legs. However, soon after Asgreen’s move, Naesen and Van Avermaet tried multiple attacks. After numerous unsuccessful attempts, Asgreen was gone and AG2R suddenly were riding for a best of second-place. They’d have been somewhat disappointed to come away without a podium in the end.
However, there are positive signs for AG2R ahead of De Ronde. Both Naesen and Van Avermaet are in strong form and although they may need to alter their tactical plan slightly to battle for victory, they have a good chance heading into the second monument of the season.
It was a torturous day in the saddle for every rider on the startline at the 2021 Gent-Wevelgem. Strong winds played their part from the beginning creating echelons from the get-go. 25 riders headed the race with 100km remaining and unlike at E3, Deceuninck only had Sam Bennett at the pointy end of proceedings.
After the riders turned back towards Wevelgem, Sam Bennett, Michael Matthews, Sonny Colbrelli, Giacomo Nizzolo and Wout Van Aert found themselves in a heavily thinned, yet powerful group that clearly had strong firepower in a sprint.
WVA also had the luxury of teammate Nathan Van Hooydonck, who would attack with 16km remaining. Sam Bennett had already been sick at this point, and this move would finally shed the Irishman alongside Danny Van Poppel.
No meaningful moves were made from this point to the line, where Van Hooydonck led-out the group. Van Aert timed his sprint to perfection and although Giacomo Nizzolo was finishing quickly and was perhaps slightly hampered making his way past other sprinters, the win for Van Aert was comfortable.
Van Hooydonck Could be Crucial for Jumbo-Visma
Image credit: Presse Sports / Offside
Nathan Van Hooydonck is in his first year with Jumbo-Visma after riding for BMC and then CCC for four seasons. Now 25-years-old, the Belgian is without a pro win to his name. However, he was extraordinarily strong at Gent-Wevelgem and was crucial in Van Aert’s win. His presence in the group alone helped assure his leader whilst also deterring any attacks.
He also tried a few sneaky attacks himself, where WVA dropped his teammate’s wheel meaning his competitors in the breakaway had to chase. He then finished the job off with a fantastic lead-out. It was Jumbo-Visma who were the strongest team at Gent-Wevelgem, and if Van Aert is to claim the Tour of Flanders next weekend, Van Hooydonck could be crucial.
Sam Bennett is a Fighter
Image credit: Zac Williams/SWpix.
We can’t write this piece without giving a big shout to Sam Bennett. After battling to stay at the head of the race for 230km, the Irishman was finally dropped — denying him the chance of victory. However, it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
Following the final ascent of the Kemmelberg, Bennett dropped off the back of the group and was physically sick before latching back on where he battled to cling-on. It was only when Van Hooydonck attacked that Bennett simply could not fight on any longer, effectively ending Deceuninck's chances.
Bennett won his first WorldTour one-day race last week at Brugge-De Panne in another DQS lead-out clinic. He’s becoming stronger over one-day and although not lining up for the Tour of Flanders (the route is too difficult for him to have a realistic chance), he’ll be a leading favourite to win Scheldeprijs next week.