The sight of Tadej Pogačar and Mathieu van der Poel leading the Tour of Flanders was one that many expected before the race. Few thought, though, that on their wheels would be the young Brit Fred Wright. Even the commentators on Belgian television repeatedly called the Bahrain-Victorious rider Jan Tratnik – it took the graphic coming up on screen for them to finally accept that it was indeed the 22-year-old Londonder clinging on to the wheels at the front of the Tour of Flanders.
It was canny riding that put Wright in the race-winning move. Though still only in the first chapter of his career, 2022 was the third time the Brit had raced Belgium's biggest one day event, and his learnings from each edition so far shone through on Sunday. He raced with tactical nous, keeping in mind the attritional nature of Flanders’ Finest.
“It’s just an elimination race,” Wright said afterwards. “I was happy to follow Dylan van Baarle after the first time up the Paterberg. I knew that being ahead for the Koppenberg and the Taaienberg was going to help.”
“Mathieu and Tadej, they’re better than me on the climbs, so for them to come across and be in the front group of five I was super happy, but I was on my knees.”
Aware of his stature in a group littered with the race’s main favourites, Wright played his cards right: “I was really trying to do as little as possible. I think they all knew I was knackered,” he explains. “I knew I’d come round a little bit, but as soon as Tadej started to ride on the Kwaremont, I had to ride at my own pace.”
It was on the feared and revered climb that Wright was forced to watch the wheels of the two most famous riders in the men’s WorldTour bounce away from him over the bone-shaking cobbles. “I was there, I couldn’t do any more,” he says. “On the Kwaremont I was hitting every cobble. I just couldn’t hold the wheel.”
Image: Sprint Cycling Agency/Bahrain Victorious
It was the brutal flat 10km run-in to the finish in Oudenaarde that provided the final death knell for Fred’s legs. Head down, teeth gritted, he tried his utmost to limit his losses, working with Stefan Küng and Dylan Teuns all the way to the finish line. “It's a time trial at the end. I was just ticking down the Ks. I swear that was the longest 10kms in the whole of cycling,”
It’s clear by Wright’s demeanour as he struggles to formulate sentences to appease the crowding British journalists, that he gave everything in De Ronde. His determination is a testament to his understanding of the race’s importance and significance in the sport he loves. “It means a f*cking lot!” he says. “[This race], it’s special.”
With grit stuck to his skin, with salty sweat drying on his helmet strap, Wright appears to still be processing the gravity of his achievement. He finished seventh in the Ronde van Vlaanderen in the end, as a relatively unknown 22-year-old among the world’s best, asserting himself as a Classics star of the future. “I can’t really speak, I’m so tired. I think I need some food,” he says.
Though it will take some time to process, Wright’s ability to smile despite the exhaustion and pain that Vlaanderens Mooiste had bestowed on him speaks volumes for his feelings about his performance. “I could feel what my limits were and I gave my best. To be in the top 10, I’m f***ing happy with that.”
Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix