Cycling doesn’t award a ‘man of the match’ like football, but if it did, there’s no doubt that Oier Lazkano would have taken it after his performance at Dwars door Vlaanderen. While the name on everyone’s lips ahead of the race was Jumbo-Visma, and most people expected the win to be taken by a rider in yellow and black, few would have predicted Movistar’s Basque rouleur to finish in second behind Christophe Laporte in Waregem today.
It’s not just because 23-year-old Lazkano is a rider who hasn't had many results in the Flandrian one-day races before (the biggest result of his career ahead of today was a win in stage two of the Ethias-Tour de Wallonie last year), but it’s also because of the brave, rollercoaster journey he went on to secure that podium position.
The Movistar rider was in the breakaway of the day with six other riders, which formed with still over 100km of the race remaining. Usually, these breaks are for riders who want to take a chance, they know that the big favourites will remain in the peloton until the race begins to reach its explosive finale, but being in the early move gives those who might not be able to follow punchy attacks a slim chance of making it to the line.
Lazkano looked strong throughout the race as other riders slowly dropped out of the breakaway. He was powering over the cobbles, finessing the treacherous Belgian roads with smooth bunnyhops over potholes and fighting over the summit of every steep climb. Inside the final 30km of the race, the breakaway had been whittled down steadily by the brutal Flemish roads, so that only Lazkano and Alexander Kristoff remained. Behind them, the likes of Jumbo-Visma were closing in fast, breathing down the necks of the two unlikely escapees.
Despite the coherent chase and attacking group behind, Kristoff and Lazkano continued to share turns with gritted teeth and grimacing pain faces. Through fight and determination, the duo held off the chasing group for longer than anyone would have anticipated, keeping the gap at a tantalising 20 seconds as the distance ticked down. But this was a bike race, not a fairytale, and the group of pre-race favourites eventually closed in on Kristoff and Lazkano with six kilometres remaining, Lazkano’s head bobbing from side to side, his shoulders slumped.
The commentators lauded the efforts of the duo with sympathetic praise about the longevity of their time in front. It seemed like their day was over, Lazkano looked spent and there were riders that should have had much fresher legs in the group that had just caught him. The focus of the race moved on to who would take victory from this group on the road and the valiant efforts of the original breakaway of the day were quickly forgotten.
But, to his own credit and to the surprise of many, Lazkano was one person who was certainly not done with his assault of Dwars door Vlaanderen, attacking the lead group again in the run-in to the line and closing down gaps to others on the wide, exposed roads. These moves were eventually fruitless, with Laporte launching his winning attack at 4km to go and quickly gapping the group that Lazkano was part of.
Even if nothing had come after that for Lazkano, the Movistar rider’s performance would still have been remembered for his combative riding and willingness to race aggressively, but he was not prepared to leave the race with nothing. As the kilometres ticked down, Lazkano attacked again, this time with Neilson Powless of EF Education-EasyPost on his wheel.
Somehow, against all odds, when the likes of Jasper Philipsen, Arnaud de Lie and Mads Pedersen were sprinting full throttle behind him, Lazkano was able to produce an unexpected effort to hold on all the way to the finish line to win the reduced bunch sprint for second place. He hadn’t won the race overall, yet he punched the air as he crossed the line, his smile wide and pure, celebrating a historic result for Spanish cycling and Movistar, as well as a career-defining moment for himself.
It’s hard not to be happy for Lazkano’s podium position; he represented the underdog, breaking the mould of what should happen to riders who have been in the breakaway all day. When many expected him to collapse and disappear from the race with just praise for his efforts, Lazkano found an almost absurd reserve of additional power deep within him to fight for more, a testament to his strong character.
In some ways, Lazkano’s result is a breath of fresh air in the shadow of the dominance that Jumbo-Visma has cast over these Belgian Classics so far. We could all see a little bit of ourselves in the emotion that the Basque rider showed today through his scrappy effort in the breakaway and the pure elation he exhibited when he crossed the line in second place. It was a harsh contrast to the incredible composure of Laporte as he powered to victory a few seconds before.
Even though there’s a particular team at the moment that are making things look easy, cycling is a hard sport, and coming second in a semi-Classic is a formidable result that riders have every right to celebrate as enthusiastically as Lazkano did at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
As the Tour of Flanders looms, there will undoubtedly be conversation about how the Movistar rider will stand up to the bigger teams in that race on Sunday, but Lazkano’s performance today should be remembered regardless of what comes next. Even though he didn’t stand up on the top step of the podium in the end, the Basque rider’s strength and his determined defiance of the odds will go down in history. Lazkano was all of us today, a slice of normality among cycling’s era of dominating super talents.