And nobody knows it more than Pedersen.
“The last 10 kilometers, yes, there was a little bit of a feeling that they didn’t want to let each other go,” Pedersen said.
Pedersen, Van Aert and van der Poel made the nine-man front group that rumbled toward the finish together, and all eyes were on the former cyclocorss greats in the final. The thrilling final kilometers came after van Aert and van der Poel sprinted up the Kemmelberg, elbow-to-elbow.
Van Aert put in a major attack with 5km remaining, only to see his advantage chased back by van der Poel. When van Aert kicked again, van der Poel then bridged up to the move.
“We know that strong riders should never go alone — when Wout attacked with 5 or 6km to go, and there you’re not letting him go, so even the rest of us were ready to close him,” Pedersen said. “Maybe they were looking at each other more than the rest.”
The salvos between van Aert and van der Poel upped the discomfort level in the front group, and cameras caught sight of other riders grimacing to stay in the bunch. Just after van Aert’s final acceleration was brought back, a three-man group containing Matteo Trentin (CCC Team), Florian Senechal (Deceuninck–Quick-Step), and Alberto Bettiol (EF Pro Cycling) sprung away with just 1.3km to go.
As van Aert and van der Poel stared at each other, Pedersen leapt away from the two cyclocrossers and bridged up to the three-man group. Behind, there was no reaction from the two rivals, and the inaction cost them a chance to sprint for the win.
Pedersen, meanwhile, took the sprint ahead of Senechal.
“Today I tried to play it smarter than normal and it paid off,” Pedersen said. “I had enough to jump across and have the sprint.”
The win, Pedersen said, also sprung from Trek-Segafredo’s all-or-nothing mentality at the cobbled classics. After his victory, Pedersen said that the American team is racing each event as though it is the final one of the 2020 season.
That attitude has come after Paris-Roubaix was recently canceled due to COVID-19. With so much uncertainty swirling around each race, Pedersen said that the team is simply pouring all of its efforts into each one individually.
Trek-Segafredo now heads to Scheldeprijs on Wednesday, followed by the Tour of Flanders on Sunday.
“Before we went [to Gent-Wevelgem] we had a good talk and decided that we are racing every day like it’s the last race of the season,” Pedersen said. “You never know what happens. Every day it’s all-in, and it’s going to be again on Wednesday and on Sunday.”
The victory on Sunday is Pedersen’s biggest win outside of his UCI world road race title in 2019. Pedersen confirmed himself as a cobbled classics specialist with a top ride at the Tour of Flanders in 2018 — he rode into the early break and then held on for second overall.
Now, Pedersen is a favorite for Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, which will be the final monument of the season.
“I did a good Flanders two years ago and now I’m showing that I’m actually one of the guys who can win classics, so it means a lot to me to win here,” Pedersen said.
Still, all eyes will still be on van Aert and van der Poel on Sunday. Van der Poel comes into the event having won the BinckBank Tour in dramatic fashion with a 50-kilometer breakaway on the final stage. Van Aert has been one of the most successful racers of the 2020 season, with two Tour de France stage victories, plus the win at Strade Bianche.
But, as Pedersen now knows, the rivalry can create opportunities for him.
“I realized it one time when it was, like, Mathieu closed Wout and then I really saw it,” Pedersen said. “Otherwise, I had more to deal with with myself — to save as much energy as possible — than looking at what the other guys did.”