The classics are coming, and they may be a little different this year.
The peloton’s cobblestone brawlers will ride into a reshaped landscape when Omloop Het Nieuwsblad kick-starts the carnage Saturday at the “opening weekend.”
“The classics are always crazy, and maybe more this year,” Trek-Segafredo sport director Steven de Jongh told VeloNews. “There’s a lot different from 2021 that’s for sure. Things have changed.”
Wout van Aert has a whole new wreckin’ crew.
Trek-Segafredo and EF-Education Easy Post are bristling with new classics-bashers. Tom Pidcock wants to win everything. Peter Sagan could surprise with his new team. And Quick-Step is, well, same old Quick-Step.
Oh and Mathieu van der Poel? The rider of reference isn’t likely to be around a few months yet.
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Throw in calendar kerfuffles caused by the delayed Paris-Roubaix and schedule shuffling resulting from omicron, and this spring’s classics could be more chaotic than ever.
More ‘packs’ than just Patrick’s
The curtain-raising double-header is crucial for gaining early classics kudos, but this year, it’s also an opportunity to test stormy waters.
“It’s hard to know what to expect, and we will have to be ready to react to that. Racing could be very different if van der Poel is not there. A lot will then be focused on van Aert, so there will be a lot of pressure on their [Jumbo-Visma’s] shoulders,” de Jongh said.
“But on the other hand, Quick-step is always there, and Lotto-Soudal had a really good start of the season. The traditional classics teams who will be up there, but there’s going to be surprises – EF, Ineos.”
One thing that won’t be a surprise this spring?
Van Aert will be the reference point. The all-terrain ace is full steam for Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, and this year, he won’t be going it alone.
Van Aert’s flanks will be guarded by new Jumbo-Visma wingmen Christophe Laporte and Tiesj Benoot, with the returning Mike Teunissen bringing more beef.
After years of being a one-man band, Jumbo-Visma has collected as many alphas as Patrick Lefevere and his Quick-Step “wolfpack.”
“The classics are races where it’s hard to always only play a single card,” Jumbo-Visma director Grischa Niermann told VeloNews.
“Last year we realized that if we want to succeed in the classics, we need a broader base. We need more guys able to get into the final and really be in the race, not only Wout … Wout, of course, is our clear leader but now we have a few other weapons.”
Jumbo-Visma isn’t the only squad that got brawnier for 2022.
Trek-Segafredo signed a stack of new sidekicks for its Mads Pedersen-Jasper Stuyven double-punch, and EF Education EasyPost has brought backup to position Michael Valgren and Alberto Bettiol.
Not that classics kings Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl care. As far as team boss Lefevere is concerned, his team is the OG “pack,” and Flanders is theirs.
“I am Patrick without fear. We are ‘the Wolfpack’ – the rest should be afraid of us,” Lefevere told Het Nieuwsblad earlier this month.
Quick-Step sport director Rick van Slyke said that Kasper Asgreen, Zdenek Stybar, Yves Lampaert and their legions will stick to doing what they do best: “Flooding the zone” in a surge of race-winning threats.
“There’s no pressure on us,” he said. “We will keep racing to our strengths and do our thing.”
Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl has made the classics its own through the past decade by wielding more numbers than rivals can contain.
But that was then, this is now.
Jumbo-Visma chief Niermann thinks Quick-Step’s full-flood tactic won’t work the same against his newly mega-muscled Dutch team.
“Other teams, the tactics that they have used against Wout before when the team wasn’t strong enough to counter attacks and cover moves hopefully won’t work this year,” Niermann said.
“I don’t know if teams like Quick-Step are going to change their tactics but of course we have different possibilities now.”
The 2021 dynamic of a lonely van Aert, Pedersen or Valgren battling a surging Quick-Step onslaught is just that – the past.
COVID consternation, calendar kerfuffles
Like the last two year’s this season’s classics will play out against the shadow of COVID.
But unlike the past two seasons, the new omicron variant is in town and ready to bring any rider down.
Tour of Flanders champion Asgreen is the headline name among scores that have been sidelined by the virus this winter. Directors are expecting a whole morass of COVID calendar complications in 2022.
Also read: Omicron rips through winter peloton
“We try to plan riders’ seasons like we did before, but after one week of having a plan, you have to change it if a rider is infected. It’s difficult and intense, ” Quick-Step director van Slyke said.
Teams with deep rosters and a broad base could have the upper hand in the battle with the cobbles and the ‘cron. Already this season, squads have been forced to send threadbare line-ups to major races. Lotto-Soudal took just four riders at the UAE Tour after illness swept through the squad, Trek-Segafredo similarly sent five.
The final piece in the moving puzzle of the 2022 classics? The delayed Roubaix.
The “Hell of the North” is one week later this year, trading places with Amstel Gold Race.
Riders can no longer rely on the six-week Omloop to Roubaix routine that worked every other year before. The smooth roads and jagged hills of Amstel have put an unwelcome pot-hole into the road to Roubaix.
“The period from when riders have to start being OK to when they have to be at their highest peak is now longer, it makes a big difference,” van Slyke said. “You cannot hold that high kick needed for long. So it’s very difficult now in preparations.”
Pedersen is ducking out of “opening weekend” to save his strongest legs for April. Van Aert will be diving in and out of the one-days in an effort to prolong his peak. Team trainers will be patrolling riders’ power and recovery numbers with Roubaix’s pavé in the long-view.
To coin a cliché, expect the unexpected this spring. The Flandrien fun starts Saturday.