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Young Van Baarle the Flanders surprise

The exertions of the Ronde van Vlaanderen grab riders and throw them out the back of the front group like paper whipped out of an open car window. Present, then suddenly absent. Stijn Vandenbergh disappeared, and Tom Boonen, and Daniel Oss, and Edvald Boassen Hagen. But Dylan Van Baarle pushed on.

It takes guts to attack on the Kwaremont. The Paterberg looms, with only a heart-shattering false flat and preciously short descent to recover between the two. But when Etixx – Quick-Step’s Vandenbergh moved, punching forward as the Kwaremont turned left onto its rough, pitted second half, Van Baarle followed. The fresh-faced 23-year-old Cannondale rider shadowed Etixx’s super-domestique onto the long, paved false-flat, his face a mask, upper body still, legs churning. With 50 kilometers remaining, the two rolled together toward the day’s long breakaway, 30 seconds ahead. They quickly passed through and into the head of the race.

“For me, personally, the second time up the Kwaremont was the key,” Van Baarle said after the race. “I attacked with Vandenbergh. I knew he is strong and always wants to ride. So I saw him going and got off my ass.”

Fifty kilometers later, young Van Baarle was awarded for his audacity: Sixth place at the Tour of Flanders, just behind Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), ahead of Lars Boom, Geraint Thomas, Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar. It was confirmation of a bright classics future for the quiet Dutchman with a penchant for the stones.

“He was good from zero to kilometer 200, and at 200 he just had the right feeling and he went,” Cannondale sport director Andreas Klier, who was second at Flanders in 2005, told VeloNews. “He just reacted, and it was the right moment. From there on, his engine really started. We were pretty sure it would work out and he’d end up somewhere in the front. If you have a really good day, you can’t do a lot wrong.”

It was the third-best Flanders result in Slipstream’s history, after Martijn Maaskants’s fourth in 2009 and Tyler Farrar’s fifth in 2010, and 33 places higher than Van Baarle’s 2015 effort. (Peter Sagan was second for Cannondale Pro Cycling in 2013, but despite the identical sponsor, that team was under completely different management.) And it came a week after every single Cannondale rider, including Van Baarle, dropped out of Gent-Wevelgem, victims of an illness that swept the entire classics team.

“This sixth place meant a lot for me but also for the team. Last weekend was not how we wanted to be. Everyone was not fit, and sick. So after the race we were pretty depressed,” Van Baarle said. “But with this result we can be very happy. Without all the hard work of everyone we couldn’t reach this.

“I think we had one goal: To get the best out of this race. It wasn’t over yet. I mean the races last weekend were already raced, but today is a new day with new chances and we took it with both hands.”

Cycling glimpsed Van Baarle’s talent when he won the 2014 Tour of Britain over Michal Kwiatkowski and Bradley Wiggins, and again when he finished third at Dwars door Vlaanderen in 2015. But this year’s Flanders was his first monumental breakthrough.

“He grew the last two years, steady. He’s going in the right direction,” said Klier. “It’s nice for a sport director or a trainer — whoever works with him.”

Van Baarle is one of two Cannondale riders trained by Jonathan Vaughters. Joe Dombrowski is the second. Vaughters’s style is somewhat unorthodox — this winter, he sought to make climber Dombrowski heavier so that he could better handle the kilometers before the climbs — but the pair seem to have hit it off.

“It took a lot of faith on Dylan’s part to let his boss coach him. Even more so because some of the training was very unusual and really hard,” Vaughters said. “But he’s adapted very nicely and he’s been great to work with. I never worry about whether he does the full amount of training. I only worry that he always wants to add on a little bit more.”

Van Baarle will tackle Paris-Roubaix next. 133rd last year (compared to 39th at Flanders), it seems the French stones don’t suit him quite as well. But Roubaix, of all the monuments, leaves particular space for luck and the underdog. Perhaps Flanders’s best Dutchman can surprise once again.