The day before the Tour of Flanders, we went and looked at a part of the course. Dušan [Rajović], who is one of the domestiques in the team, wanted to see it because it is his first time doing these races. It was important for him to know the key points when he needed to be at the front. It was good for me to see as well, we were targeting the section just before the first time up the Kwaremont and then the next few points after that.
I did a couple of efforts during that ride, but it's more just a refresher of the course. We got back and saw that a lot of the teams just went on the turbo, but I still think we made the right decision. The weather was not great though.
Afterwards, we went back to the villa and it was just all about eating. You work out the amount you want to eat in terms of grammes of carbs from the previous races. It’s a lot of pasta but with the chef making everything, it's pretty easy to split it up and get yourself as fuelled as possible before the start.
For the Classics, we've been doing team meetings the day before the race, rather than on the bus on the day. It's way better. The one before the Tour of Flanders was maybe one of the longest meetings I've had in my career, but I think it was really good because we all spoke about the race, the different points and what can happen. You can get too bogged down in all the possible outcomes and eventualities of the race, but actually it was nice, because everyone was properly invested and listening this time. Sometimes you have long meetings sometimes where everyone's just like, can it be over? But this one really had substance to it.
I was quite surprised because the plan was to try and catch some of those big guns out early, especially as it was going to be little bit windy. That was a bit of a shock. It was like we wanted to try something different. Normally it is quite chilled until the first time you do the Kwaremont, but we wanted to change that a bit. I guess that’s modern cycling these days which a lot of the older guys complain about. The racing just starts so much earlier. It was always my role to anticipate the moves quite early with almost 100 km to go.
Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
Flanders is such a long day and it’s such a big race with a massive build-up so in the morning before the race, it was just mostly exciting. I think at Paris-Roubaix, I tend to be a bit more nervous just because there is that uncertainty to it, a bit more randomness, whereas Flanders is just a great race. Doing the start from Bruges, it made it feel like such a big deal, too.
When the race kicked off, we started to make our move early as planned. The team car was definitely aware that some of the bigger guys were more towards the back of the bunch at that point and they said, we've got some wind coming up, let's try what we planned in the meeting and see if we can do something. Us and other teams making the race hard like that early then meant that the breakaways had a better chance, because it made the race harder so the big favourites didn’t have as many domestiques to bring it back.
Things started so fast because so many teams wanted to be in the break. There's been this big build-up around those three big riders for this race that everyone was trying to get ahead of them.
When there was that big crash at around 140 km to go, I was in the middle of the bunch so I actually did get caught behind it. With these races, at those points you just have to stay calm. Most of the time there's someone else who's trying to come back to the bunch as well. In that case, Wout [van Aert] was also caught behind it so we were in the same group chasing back and we got on absolutely fine. There’s so much stress in Flanders compared to other races and it’s about dealing with it, because every bit of energy you waste makes a big difference.
There was no time to switch off, the six and half hours went by so quickly. Last year felt like more of a slow build to the Kwaremont but this year was so much more full-on from the start.
The first time up the Kwaremont this year we were going really slowly for some reason. Normally you can enjoy the fans the first time, but this year we were going so slow I almost felt like I was going to crash. I think Team DSM decided to ride it really slow, I guess they have to try something but I'm not sure about what they were doing. It was a full headwind on the main road afterwards as well, so I knew I’d be ok even though I was a bit far back.
Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
The fans were amazing though, on the Kwaremont and especially on the Kanarieberg. There were all these fans with small yellow Flanders flags, waving them. Because we weren't going that hard up that climb and the move was already established, that was a good way to actually take it in, like, this is mad.
The breakaway that I ended up in went on the Molenberg. It is such a narrow cobbled climb and it's not that long, but if you get into it in a good position then it's quite easy to create a break just from going hard on that climb, because someone won't be able to follow the wheel and then it's all over.
I was positioned about eighth wheel going into it because my teammate set me up really well – it’s a full-on lead out into that corner. It was [Kasper] Asgreen who was on the front who created the break and he was really strong all day, I bridged across with [Nathan] van Hooydonck and [Matteo] Trentin.
Van Hooydonck wasn’t pulling much early on but guys like [Stefan] Küng, Asgreen and [Mads] Pedersen, they just kept going, kept pulling. I’m not sure if I did too much, I definitely didn't do as much as some of the other guys but equally, maybe I could have gotten away with doing a bit less because I could have said I’ve got Matej [Mohorič] behind, and because they were so strong I could have done a bit less.
With the riders that were in that break and the way the race went, it was perfect. Without Matej crashing behind, who knows what could have been, it was all going pretty smoothly. There were lots of crashes yesterday, that’s what was quite scary.
When we got to the front of the race it was a bit easier because some of the other riders had teammates there too. Mads had Dan Hoole pulling for him and [Tim] Merlier was pulling as well for Asgreen. They pulled into the Kwaremont for the second time. If you’re in the bunch then, it’s one of the scariest fights for your position you'll do in your career. In the break it’s so much easier.
It wasn't until the last time up the Kwaremont that Pogačar and the others came back to us. I learnt from last year that I can try and follow them but it completely cooked me before, I could barely pedal to the finish. Maybe I was a little bit afraid this year, I think what Mads did was great, he got the most out of himself in the race getting up the road. I could have been with him but I didn’t know if it was the best thing to do when he rolled off the front. It’s all about having to make these little decisions. You have to remember to eat too, I think I had about three pieces of solid food at the start and then about ten gels so quite a lot of fuel.
Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
Straightaway on the radio after the Kwaremont it was like okay, you've survived, just try and focus on the result. I knew I needed to follow [Wout] van Aert and Pedersen in the final sprint but I got a little bit boxed in. I didn't really have very good sprint legs left at all, just jelly legs. I went back and then tried to come back around, but you're not coming around anyone in that sort of race. I was a little bit disappointed because in a sprint, normally, I would back myself. But Mads and Wout are the best in the world at that, at least I know I’m in good company.
I was closer to being on the podium this year than I was last year, so I’m going in the right direction, just a bit gutted because I definitely could have played that sprint better.
It’s hard because I really want to win this race but Pogačar was so strong. You have got a guy like Mads who was doing everything so well to get the best result for himself, but he still can’t beat him. It's like, how are we ever going to do this? But I’m sure there will be more chances.
This year, it was definitely up there with the hardest race I’ve done, because there's not been that many times I've been there until the end in those big races pushing the whole way. My power numbers were higher than last year, the general consensus was that it was the hardest Flanders ever.
After the race finishes, with Paris-Roubaix on Sunday you still have to be on it, you can’t just completely switch off. Up until Sunday evening I did the right things with a recovery shake and stuff, but I had a beer at dinner because you’ve got to enjoy these moments too, Flanders is such an epic day.
Looking ahead to Roubaix, I think Flanders was a confirmation that I have the preparation and everything right. I was starting to doubt things but it told me I am where I want to be. I’m really excited now.
We’ll do a recon of Roubaix on Thursday. We’ll go from the sector before the Arenberg to the finish. I’d like to do more but you don’t want to wreck your hands and everything before the race. It will be on full race set-up. I'll be adjusting tyre pressures a little bit between sectors working out what the best thing is. I think I've got a rough idea of what I want to go for but sometimes you want to change it. Normally it is quite easy to find out what pressures you need to run because the Arenberg is the worst sector so you just think, how many times did I hit the rim? I’ll go a little bit harder then.
I think after Sunday was so hard, I definitely don't want to do too much in the recon. It's easy to get really carried away and smash it. I’m going to try and be the last man from the team going into every sector so I can just sit back and relax.
When it comes to results, I'd like to think I can push for a podium again at Roubaix, but there are so many things that can go wrong. I hope to be up there. If I can keep doing that, it will work out at some point. My ride at Flanders this year showed that last year wasn’t a fluke. Of course, there are other factors at play at Roubaix that sometimes limit you, though, so we'll see.