I popped into my local bike shop yesterday and the store manager could hardly hide his childlike delight.
“This has been one of the best Classics seasons in years!” he said. I had to agree.
“Kasper Asgreen had one of the rides of the century, and don’t you say anything otherwise!”
He was talking about Asgreen’s solo break at the E3 Saxobank Classic — a 54km slog over the hardest cobbles and bergs of Flanders that culminated in him getting caught inside the last 10km and then attacking again to win solo. As much as I decry the overuse of the word ‘epic’ in cycling, I’m going to call in one of my yearly quota here.
It doesn’t really matter that, much to my bike shop buddy’s chagrin, I felt Asgreen got a little lucky with the circumstances: his Deceuninck-Quickstep team padded the group behind, which looked to Wout Van Aert to do the donkey-work. It was still a great win.
Mads Pedersen winning Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (Photo credit: Davy Rietbergen/Cor Vos)
And it has been a great spring. There was Mathieu Van der Poel’s convention-defying near-miss break at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. A titanic Strade Bianche where Classics galácticos went head to head with a Tour de France winner. Then we saw an absorbing edition of Milan-San Remo won from an all-or-nothing tactical tour de force, a slugging match of a Ghent-Wevelgem and another lone winner at Dwars Door Vlaanderen.
What’s going on in the men’s WorldTour?
Above all else, Van der Poel and Van Aert are dictating this year’s racing. With his muscular style and penchant for unpredictable manoeuvres, Van der Poel appears to be cycling in another dimension. Van Aert, meanwhile, is predictable in that he can win from almost any situation.
It’s no surprise that everybody else is looking right at them, both in anticipation of their moves and in expectation that they will be the ones to react to anybody else’s. As with all great rivalries, they have set a template. Even in their absence – and Van der Poel has looked somewhat off the boil since Strade Bianche – there’s a sense that the rest of the peloton collectively looks at each other and says, ‘well, what now?’
The difference with previous rivalries is that these two riders don’t have the strongest classics teams. This draws them out early and blunts their edges for the race-defining finales. Wout Van Aert’s biggest one-day success of the season (at the time of writing), Ghent-Wevelgem, was as much down to the presence of his Jumbo-Visma teammate Nathan Van Hooydonck, who clawed his way back to the lead group by his fingernails after the Kemmelberg, as it was his superb sprint.
As two children of cyclo-cross, it’s no surprise that Van Aert and Van der Poel like to do things on their own, yet their isolation has levelled the field.
Deceuninck-Quickstep are again the strongest squad in this year’s classics. E3 was right out of their playbook; the team had strength in numbers in the final hour of racing and any one of Zdeněk Štybar, Yves Lampaert and Florian Sénéchal – all exceptional individuals – could have won. Yet at other occasions, the self-styled wolfpack have gone hungry. Despite knowing that the best way to beat Van der Poel or Van Aert is to outnumber them, only Sam Bennett made the lead group at Ghent-Wevelgem, and he had to ride so hard over the Kemmelberg that he threw up, bonked, and got dropped.
For the Tour of Flanders, the race by which Quickstep’s early season will be judged, they have in Julian Alaphilippe one of the few individuals capable of going toe-to-toe alone with the two favourites. Yet one feels like what the team lacks is a real alpha male to glue the pack together: a Tom Boonen or a Johan Museeuw.
This has left something of a power void. With no template for beating Van der Poel or Van Aert other than through numbers, some teams have been conspicuous in their absence, namely EF Education Nippo, Israel Start-Up Nation, and DSM. Oliver Naesen and Greg Van Avermaet have set up shop in the lead chase groups this spring, but the two leaders on Ag2r-Citroen are caught in a middle ground in every sense. They lack numbers, they lack anonymity (Van Avermaet’s gold accoutrements see to that) and they arguably lack a bit of punch. When you look at the in-form riders from other squads – Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka-Assos), Matteo Trentin (UAE-Team Emirates), Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) or Michael Matthews (Bike Exchange) – you have to ask: who on earth is interested in towing them to the line?
Van Aerts and Van der Poel are dictating this year's racing (Photo credit: CorVos/SWpix.com)
Having gone so far without mentioning Covid-19, the global pandemic continues to disturb the cycling calendar. Bora-Hansgrohe’s talisman Peter Sagan came down with the virus in February while the whole squad had to sit out E3 and Ghent-Wevelgem due to a positive case with rider Matt Walls. Trek-Segafredo also missed Ghent-Wevelgem, with Edward Theuns and Kuurne winner Mads Pedersen confined to isolation ahead of De Ronde, depleting recent races of two big-hitting teams with the capacity to dampen down any fireworks.
There remains the imminent threat of races being cancelled or postponed at short notice, most notably with Paris-Roubaix, and with such a back-loaded calendar in 2020, some riders are no doubt feeling the lack of rest between seasons. Philippe Gilbert is one of them, having withdrawn from Flanders citing physical and mental fatigue in his comeback from a knee injury.
There have been overwhelmingly dry and fast conditions across Belgium and Italy, and with cycling’s relentless pursuit of aerodynamic advantages, lone escapees like Dylan van Baarle and Kasper Asgreen are clearly comfortable riding in an aerodynamic position for a long period of time.
But perhaps above it’s like the old adage of Milan-San Remo: in order to win you have to be willing to lose. With Van Aert, Van der Poel, Covid-19 and everything else, the majority of the men’s peloton knows that its chances of winning just aren’t what they were. With that in mind, right now they just have much less to lose.