Strength in numbers: How Lidl-Trek's perfect teamwork got the better of Mathieu van der Poel at Gent-Wevelgem

Mads Pedersen's superior sprint to beat the world champion came after his team succeeded in attacking the race as a unit

So far this spring, the Classics had been all about just two teams: Visma-Lease a Bike and Alpecin-Deceuninck. In fact, those two teams had shared the spoils in all of the WorldTour Classics raced prior to today - first Visma-Lease a Bike made the most of their superior numbers during Opening Weekend to triumph at both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne through Jan Tratnik and Wout van Aert respectively; then Alpecin’s Jasper Philipsen used his peerless sprint work win Milan-Sanremo and Classic Brugge-De Panne, and Mathieu van der Poel his unstoppable strength on the cobbles to take victory at E3 Saxo Bank Classic.

But just as it seemed as though the upcoming cobbled Monuments these races have been building towards, a third team have thrown their hat into the ring: Lidl-Trek.

At Gent-Wevelgem, the team not only broke the duopoly by becoming the first different team to win a Classic this spring, they did so with the kind of collective strength that suggests they can go toe to toe with both Alpecin and Visma, will be a force to reckoned with. One factor for Lidl-Trek to overcome was the growingly invincible aura Mathieu van der Poel carries with him. Since winning all of Milan-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix and the World Championships last year, a gulf has opened up between himself and every other riders in the Classics, with even his great rival Wout van Aert unable to compete with him. And that gulf was painfully apparent to all his would-be rivals at E3 Saxo Bank Classic on Friday, when even 44km proved not to be too far out as he attacked solo to win. 

So when he arrived at the finishing straight in Wevelgem with Lidl-Trek’s Mads Pedersen, you still felt, even though Pedersen is the more proven sprinter with bunch sprint wins to his name at the highest level, that somehow Van der Poel would still be too strong. But this time, that did not prove to be the case. The Dane remained calm, backed himself in the sprint, and was unable to be passed when he opened up his sprint, claiming his second career Gent-Wevelgem title. 

We perhaps shouldn't have doubted Pedersen given how strong he’d looked earlier in the race. In fact, he even looked stronger than Van der Poel on some of the race’s defining climbs. Although it was, inevitably, the world champion who forced the initial selections when he accelerated on the first ascent of the Kemmelberg and the second of the three plugstreet cobbled sections, on the next loop of Monteberg and Kemmelberg, Pedersen was the aggressor. Then during the all-important final time up the Kemmelberg, it was Pedersen again who led Van de Poel, and, for once, Van der Poel was grimacing. Our eyes weren't deceiving us: Van der Poel was struggling. And that struggle was apparent come the finishing straight, when he found himself unable to pass Pedersen, and sat up resigned.

As brilliant as Pedersen’s performance was, this victory was a collective triumph of his whole Lidl-Trek team. It was clear from earlier in the day, when they matched both Visma-Lease a Bike and Alpecin-Deceuninck for numbers in the lead group after crosswinds ripped apart the race on the exposed De Moeren section, that they were on a good day. But even they can't have anticipated how well they would go after the race came back together upon reaching the first climbs. When Van der Poel attacked on the Kemmelberg, he took just six riders with him, half of which were Lidl-Trek riders: Pedersen, Jasper Stuyven and Jonathan Milan. Eager to capitalise on this numerical advantage, Milan attacked shortly after the summit, forcing Van der Poel to chase, with the other riders in the group (Rasmus Tiller, Laurence Pithie and Tim van Dijke) uneager to aid a rider so clearly stronger than them.

Yet Van der Poel still appeared to bending the race to his will. He reduced the group to just himself, Pedersen, Stuyven and Pithie after attacking on the second plugstreet, then to just the three when Stuyven had the misfortune of puncturing. Then, after a long chase, he brought back Milan 65km from the finish, just prior to the final cluster of climbs. Despite the significant setback of losing Stuyven, Lidl-Trek continued to try and work him over, with Milan and Pedersen both accelerating, but once Milan was dropped the second time up the Kemmelberg, their numerical advantage was gone. 

It might have seemed that Lidl-Trek had lost their advantage, but in truth the damage had already been done. They may not have managed to drop Van der Poel, but they did, crucially, succeed in tiring him out. The chase to bring back Milan had evidently taken a lot out of him, while Pedersen had the luxury of resting on his wheel. Pedersen was happy to share the workload once Milan was brought back, and especially when just he and Van der Poel remained following the final ascent of the Kemmelberg, confident that he could better this worn-out version of Van der Poel.

By taking victory this way, Lidl-Trek succeeded where even Visma-Lease a Bike have failed so far this spring, in using their superior numbers to defeat Van der Poel. Even more impressively, they did so despite the ill-timed puncture to the in-form Jasper Stuyven, and despite also being up against Van der Poel’s teammate Jasper Philipsen, who waited menacingly in the bunch to give Alpecin-Deceuninck an extra strong card to play in the event of a bunch finish. Now, Lidl-Trek will turn their attention towards the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, where they hope to achieve something they haven't done for over three years, and win a Monument. Based on today, the flying form of both Pedersen and Stuyven, and the emergence of Milan as a cobbled Classics contender, what had seemed an outside bet at most now feels very plausible.

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