Paradigm shift: what the 2022 Tour of Flanders tells us about cycling

In an extract from the 2022 edition of The Road Book, Rouleur editor Edward Pickering discusses cycling's shift in dynamic, exemplified by this year's Tour of Flanders

This piece is an extract from the 2022 edition of The Road Book, cycling's only almanack, edited by Ned Boulting. Now in its fifth edition, The Road Book features essays from some of the sport's stars and some of its best writers, as well as a wealth of statistics, infographics, and profiles from this year's road racing season.

The Road Book 2022 is available to buy now for £50 - click here to get your copy.

The finish of the men’s Tour of Flanders said a great deal about where we are in Classics racing in 2022. A lot was happening in the last few metres: Tadej Pogačar throwing his hands up in frustration at getting boxed in; Mathieu van der Poel wildly celebrating a second win; Dylan van Baarle giving the Ineos Grenadiers their first-ever podium at the race; Valentin Madouas of Groupama-FDJ reminding bike fans that a good rider on a great day can still beat great riders who are on good days...

A snapshot of the finish would be revealing not just for who and what was in the picture but also what was missing: any rider from Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl. The finishing straight of the Tour of Flanders, on the edge of Oudenaarde, is famous for being long, straight and wide, but you’d have to squint far, far into the distance to see the first rider from the Belgian squad. Their best on the day was Kasper Asgreen, a former winner no less, in 23rd place, who was technically contesting 15th place but looked far from motivated to do so. Fifteenth, 23rd, they’re the same thing when you’ve won the race before. It was the first time of the 20 occasions Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl has contested the Tour of Flanders that they didn’t get anybody into the top 13. They’ve won it eight times; five more times their best result was runner-up; 2007 and 2013 were the only previous occasions they’d not got at least one rider into the top ten.

In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn proposed that knowledge doesn’t evolve and advance in a linear way but rather undergoes periods of revolution in which new paradigms replace old ones.These paradigm shifts occur when people develop entirely new ways of thinking or seeing the world. You don’t have to, as Kuhn did, get too into explaining how Copernican astronomy supplanted Ptolemaic astronomy, or why Einsteinian physics necessarily proved Newton to be inaccurate, to understand the principle behind paradigm shifts: sometimes it’s just a case of trying something new or reacting against the established way of doing things.

Cycling paradigm shifts are relatively uncommon. There’s more to it, for example, than younger riders coming into their peak years and eclipsing the older generation. At the Tour de France in the last 25 years, Chris Froome did the same as Alberto Contador did the same as Lance Armstrong (the doping notwithstanding) did the same as Miguel Indurain. The athletic performance and technology evolved considerably during these riders’ successive eras of domination, but the method – crush the opposition early then defend with a strong team – did not. Doing things the same but better is not a real paradigm shift. Even Mark Cavendish’s incredible success in the sprints from 2008 onwards might not have been a proper paradigm shift. His lead-out train was the best that had been seen up to that point, but it didn’t do things recognisably differently from Mario Cipollini’s Saeco train; the real paradigm shift behind Cavendish’s success might have been the combination of his attention to detail and the ‘marginal gains’ adopted by British Cycling at the same time as he was developing through their programme.

However, there’s a sense that something has changed in cycling in the last season or three. Breaks are sticking, race-defining attacks are going from further out, riders are contesting a broader variety of races... And our snapshot of the Tour of Flanders finish line is as good an illustration as any of the significant changes the sport is undergoing.

Mathieu van der Poel, the winner, is an atypical road racing cyclist. While his lineage is royal – his father Adrie also won the Tour of Flanders; his maternal grandfather Raymond Poulidor was a Vuelta winner and finished on the podium in nine more Grand Tours – Mathieu’s path into road cycling was via cyclocross, where he is a four-time world champion. Both Van der Poel and his Belgian rival Wout van Aert have combined their cross and road careers, and though they were not the first to take this pathway (Roger Hammond, Lars Boom and Zdenek Štybar all started as cyclocross riders before focusing on the road; Marianne Vos also very successfully combined multiple disciplines), they maintained dual careers for a lot longer than their male predecessors and did so with a lot more success. That’s down to the fact that Van der Poel and Van Aert are both generational talents, but they have also inspired a shift in talent identification and rider development. Tom Pidcock has come from a cyclocross background, so too the up-and-coming Ben Turner; more will follow now that Van der Poel and Van Aert have shown the way.

(Picture by Sean Hardy)

Van der Poel also races in a non-traditional manner. With his physical gifts, he might win more if he raced conservatively – he’s perhaps the best in the world on a short and not-too-steep climb, up to the gradient beyond which Julian Alaphilippe is the best. He could sit back and wait for the last climb in a race, or most uphill finishes, and simply win by being the strongest. However, there’s something more aggressive and animalistic about his racing style. He professes to get bored in long races and so attacks to mitigate the ennui. He also seems to be able to reaccelerate, even at hard moments – the long break, 50km, that won him stage 5 and the GC of the 2020 BinckBank Tour saw his pursuers closing in ahead of the finale.The catch looked inevitable – they were travelling faster than him but, despite the fact he already looked like he was riding at maximal effort, he visibly found more. He races on the road, in short, like a cyclocross rider. A typical cyclocross lap consists of a whole series of very hard efforts and recoveries that are barely worthy of the name. Van der Poel’s ability to handle that makes him able to do things that pure road racers, whose bodies are more used to holding a more consistent pace, cannot.

In winning his second Tour of Flanders, and taking his record in the race to 4-1-2-1, Van der Poel also gave us a tantalising glimpse of achieving something that other riders – even the greatest champions of the sport – could not: he’s halfway to becoming the first rider to win the Ronde four times. Of course, you cannot win the fourth until you have won the third, but the Dutchman’s consistency in the race is astonishing. It took Tom Boonen ten years to accumulate two wins, a second and a fourth. Fabian Cancellara had a run between 2010 and 2016 where he won it three times and got a second and a third in seven years. Both these riders finished their very long careers with three Ronde victories. The most consistent Ronde rider ever was another three-time winner, Johan Museeuw, who also finished second three times and third twice over a period of 12 years. Van der Poel is currently doing what no other rider has ever done: made the Tour of Flanders look straightforward. That’s a paradigm shift in itself.

The Tour of Flanders has historically been difficult to win. Every race can only have one winner, but multiple victories seem to come more easily in other similar races. Merckx won Milan– Sanremo seven times and Fausto Coppi won the Giro di Lombardia five times, for example. This is partly down to the complexity of the Ronde, though it should be added that the parcours only started incorporating multiple cobbled climbs in the Flemish Ardennes in the mid-1970s; before that date, something about the race still made it difficult to win multiple times, but it wasn’t the bergs.

What makes it possible that Van der Poel can break this mould are two related facts: first, that a lot of races are being ridden much harder than they used to be, from individual stages in stage races to the Classics. There used to be a convention that teams left it to the final 90 minutes or so to make the race hard, but teams are more organised now and the overall level of the racers is both higher and closer together than even ten years ago. In the case of the 2022 Ronde, Trek- Segafredo, UAE Emirates and Groupama-FDJ all rode extremely hard on the front of the peloton before even the 100km-to-go point. The logic being: burn off the weaker members of rival teams so that subsequent attacks are harder to chase down.The second fact pertaining toVan der Poel is that he’s simply one of the two or three strongest riders in the world on punchy terrain and over long distances. If a long race is ridden fast and all other things are equal, physiology dictates that he will be a favourite.

However, the bigger paradigm shift of the 2022 Tour de Flanders was the presence of Tadej Pogačar in the top four. Tour de France winners tend to give the Ronde a wide berth, possibly a wider berth than any other major race on the calendar, including Paris–Roubaix. Vincenzo Nibali gave Flanders a go in 2018 but flattered to deceive, coming 24th and seeing the front of the race disappear as eventual winner Niki Terpstra left him for dead on the Hotondberg. Geraint Thomas was quite good at the Tour of Flanders, finishing four times in the top 14, but last rode it in 2016, two years before he won the Tour; Bradley Wiggins was a Flanders also-ran; the last Tour winner to have even competed in the race before Wiggins was Bjarne Riis, who did the Ronde a few times as a domestique in the late 1980s. There’s little in the twisting, narrow lanes and idiosyncratic wind of the Vlaamse Ardennen for yellow jerseys. Until Tadej Pogacˇ ar.

To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway,Tadej Pogačar happened to cycling in two ways: gradually, then suddenly. His Tour of California win and third place in the Vuelta in 2019 gave him a precocious start by any standards, but he truly upended the sport when he thrashed Primož Roglič on La Planche des Belles Filles at the end of the 2020 Tour. His dominant performance the following year at the Tour makes it hard not to imagine that many yellow jerseys could be his over the next decade.

But not only did Pogačar tear up the tactical rulebook in winning the 2021 Tour, attacking two mountains out on the stage to Le Grand-Bornand, he has also made it clear that being a Tour winner is not enough. Unfortunately for his rivals, he is indiscriminate in his choice of target races. While Indurain, Armstrong and even Froome for a few years focused on the Tour and then largely took the rest of the year off, Pogačar wants to win Classics. In this regard, he is the first of his kind since Greg LeMond, who was the last Tour de France winner with any significant record in the Classics. LeMond won the Worlds, achieved podiums in Milan–Sanremo, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Giro di Lombardia and came fourth in Paris–Roubaix.

Pogačar’s catholic taste in bike races is the more radical paradigm shift in the sport and it coincides with his compatriot Roglič, a Liège–Bastogne–Liège winner, also spreading his focus. They’re not the only ones, even if they are the most successful. Egan Bernal, the 2019 Tour de France and 2021 Giro champion, had a good hit-out in Strade Bianche in 2021, coming third. Richard Carapaz, the 2019 Giro winner, won the Olympic road race in 2021. It’s not just the likes of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert who are multitasking in cycling, it’s the stage racers as well.

Pogačar won Liège–Bastogne–Liège and Il Lombardia in 2021. Of all the Monuments, these two are the ones that suit him best – the longer climbs of Liège suit him well, as do the mountains of Lombardia. Winning these two races and the Tour de France in the same year was extraordinary but also somehow unsurprising. However, it was the way he rode in early 2022, culminating in his fourth place at Flanders, that really made him look like he was revolutionising the sport.

In Strade Bianche, he simply rode away from the peloton with 50km remaining and won alone, 37 seconds ahead of Alejandro Valverde. Milan–Sanremo was also radically changed by the strategy and presence of the young Slovenian – his UAE Emirates team blew the race apart on the Cipressa, a deliberate tactic to remove the Classics-style sprinters from the equation. Oftentimes, the Cipressa has been used to soften up the race before the Poggio, but the manner in which UAE Emirates went about it was a real change in how to shape the race. Unfortunately for Pogačar, he couldn’t shed his rivals on the Poggio, despite attacking several times, and the victory slipped away from him to fellow Slovene Matej Mohoric.

Nevertheless, the Tour of Flanders should have been a more complicated proposition for Pogačar. On one hand, especially since the organisers changed the route to a tougher course in 2012, generally the winner is the strongest rider in the race who can also master the unique challenges of the Flemish roads. Even withVan der Poel on the start line, Pogačar could be confident that not many riders would be able to beat him in a straight physical contest. On the other, the race is not generally kind to debutants, although there have been a couple of signs in recent years that this could be changing. Nobody has won it on their debut since Cees Bal in 1974. Julian Alaphilippe got as far as making the winning group with Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel in 2020 but crashed; the fact that Pogačar also made it into the winning group just two years later suggests that maybe a great rider in perfect condition can cancel out the inexperience that usually makes thriving in the race such a challenge.

It was ironic, then, that after 271.5 of the 272.5km of the 2022 Tour of Flanders, with the race having followed a remorseless logic all that time in reducing the lead group to just Van der Poel and Pogačar (thanks largely to Pogačar having taken the initiative and surged on the second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont with 55km to go), the race finally became tactical. Van der Poel and Pogačar rode the final kilometre a full 20 seconds slower than the pursuing pair of Dylan van Baarle and Valentin Madouas. The final sprint therefore became far messier than it should have been, with Madouas and Van Baarle getting between Van der Poel and Pogačar and closing off any possible route around the Dutchman for the UAE Emirates rider. It was a demonstration that even riders as generation-defining as Tadej Pogačar are still capable of awful tactical decisions –Van der Poel doesn’t lose many sprints but he has occasionally given up when matched in a long, hard dash for the line, and in retrospect that was Pogačar’s only chance.

Defeat for Pogačar did not negate the fact that cycling teams are reorganising themselves around the reality of his impact on races. It might have been a sign of a new era in cycling that Pogačar was contesting the sprint for victory in the Tour of Flanders; it was equally a novel situation to have an Ineos Grenadier also in the mix.Van Baarle would confirm his form by winning Paris–Roubaix two weeks later, but second place was the team’s high-water mark in the race, and evidence that their professed aim of racing in a more exciting style and having more fun was not just PR. For years, the Classics were an afterthought for them, or at best a minor target behind the Grand Tours and week-long stage races, and especially the Tour de France. But at the same time, Ineos do not currently have anybody capable of matching Pogačar and Roglič at the Tour; diversifying away from that race gives them more chance of success, even if Pogačar is also spreading his targets. Nevertheless, Ineos Grenadiers were the team of this phase of the season – in three successive weekends they came second in Flanders, won Amstel Gold with Michal Kwiatkowski and achieved victory in Paris–Roubaix. Conversely, Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl didn’t achieve a single podium in a WorldTour one-day race until Remco Evenepoel rescued their spring with a spectacular solo victory at Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Paradigm shifts don’t happen that often in cycling, but when they do, it seems they all come at once.