Opinion: Brabantse Pijl was the best race of the men’s Classics season – is this a problem?

The absence of the sport’s biggest names led to the most dynamic racing we’ve seen all spring

The winner of Brabantse Pijl today was not determined until Benoît Cosnefroy crossed the finish line in Overijse with his arms in the air. Until that moment, the attacks in the Belgian one-day race came so quickly and the race situation changed so many times, that even the most seasoned of cycling pundits couldn’t have named the rider who would eventually take victory. It could not have been a harsher contrast to the finales of this year's editions of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

Brabantse Pijl is only a 1.Pro registered race and it takes place midway through the week after Roubaix for those puncheurs who are looking for a bit of a shake-out before the Ardennes start on the weekend. The hype before the race is negligible, nothing like the build-ups to De Ronde or the Hell of the North where riders do interviews and press conferences, and media outlets produce countless pre-race previews. Yet despite all this, Brabantse Pjil was, arguably, the most dynamic and exciting race of the entire spring season.

There was the team of Alpecin-Deceuninick who had a strong line-up even without the world champion taking to the start. The likes of Søren Kragh Andersen and Quinten Hermans rode an aggressive race for the Belgian squad, trying to split the race up early on. In contrast, EF Education-EasyPost were doing their best to hold things together for Marijn van den Berg, their Dutch fastman who has had a stellar season so far. Throw UAE Team Emirates in to the mix with Tim Wellens and Antonio Morgado, as well as Cosnefroy of Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale, plus the duo of Dylan Teuns and Joe Blackmore for Israel-Premier Tech and there was a gripping and ever-changing race situation.

Image: Getty

As the kilometres ticked down and the remnants of the peloton drew closer to the finish, the attacks didn’t stop. The climbs came and moves were constantly shot up the road – it wasn’t until the final ten kilometres when a group of seven eventually established itself at the front of the race. Even then, teams like Jayco-Alula had missed it and Michael Matthews was dragging the remaining bunch trying to pull things back together for a sprint finish. In the closing moments of the race, riders were still launching moves until a nail-biting sprint unfolded where Cosnefroy edged out Teuns for the win.

The absence of riders like Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogačar – as well as teams like Visma-Lease a Bike and Ineos Grenadiers – was what made the racing at Brabantse Pijl so exciting. During the two biggest one-day races of the year, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, the winner was decided over 50 kilometres before the finish thanks to Mathieu van der Poel’s dominant solo moves. Bike racing has been missing some of its spark over the last few weeks, and Brabantse Pijl was a race that brought that to the fore.

It’s possible to appreciate the spectacle and understand the historical importance of Van der Poel’s performances in both Roubaix and Flanders, while also admitting that they made the racing predictable. While in Brabantse Pijl it was almost impossible to turn away from the television for the final two hours, you needn’t have watched the entirety of the other two recent Belgian Classics to still have known who the winner was going to be. The different level that riders such as Van der Poel, Van Aert and Pogačar are operating on means that unless they are all present at a race, it seems like one of them is able to win with relative ease. For most of us, this isn’t what makes watching bike racing exciting. Brabantse Pijl was an example of how lively and aggressive Classics can be when there isn’t the imposing anticipation of a Van der Poel move that no one will be able to follow. 

Will normal service resume when the Dutch rider starts at the Amstel Gold Race this weekend? It’s highly possible it will. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing, and there is entertainment to be taken from watching a rider with such other-worldly skill and talent on a bicycle. Plus, cycling is ever-changing, and riders never remain dominant forever. In the women’s peloton, for example, Demi Vollering took victory in every single Ardennes Classic last year, yet Elisa Longo Borghini showed today how the tables have turned since then, beating the SD Worx rider in the women’s edition of Brabantse Pijl. There’s every chance the same thing will happen with Van der Poel in races and seasons to come. For now, we can just appreciate a good race when we see one.

Shop now