Who said the Ardennes classics are boring?
— Paul Martens (@PMartens83) April 18, 2021
From van Aert’s newfound smarts to Trek-Segafredo’s missing piece, here are the five top takeaways from this weekend’s Limburg classic:
Teamwork can make the dream work – if you have the strongest rider
Turns out that the old adage “you need both the strongest rider and the strongest team to win a bike race” is true after all.
The women’s race showed that repeated hammering only pays off if there’s the accuracy to finish the job. Trek-Segafredo bossed the back-half of the race as it looked to wear down the field to make as selective a finale a possible for team captain Elisa Longo Borghini. With the Italian not boasting the big kick to win from a bunch sprint, the American squad had to make the race one of attrition in the hopes of the win coming from the smallest of groups.
After a battery of attacks from Ruth Winder, Audrey Cordon Ragot and Tayler Wiles, it all seemed to be going perfectly for Trek-Segafredo when Longo Borghini attacked over the Cauberg with Kasia Niewiadoma. Yet even Niewiadoma proved too much of a fast-finisher for Longo Borghini, who tried – and failed – to coerce her rival into doing the pulling. The pair was caught, and in came Vos to scoop the sprint after both she and her Jumbo-Visma team had kept quiet throughout the race.
Could it have played out differently if Trek-Segafredo had fast-finishing Lizzie Deignan in the race? Possibly.
No doubt, we were on the offensive to make a hard race.
— Trek-Segafredo (@TrekSegafredo) April 18, 2021
Contrastingly, in the men’s race, Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers had riders with the legs to finish the job.
Both teams were key players in the race for very different reasons. The Dutch squad played defense, using Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard to shut down threats while Wout van Aert took a free ride to the line. Ineos chose to go on the offense, using Tom Pidcock, Michał Kwiatkowski, and Richard Carapaz to make the final selection. And when Pidcock landed the squad’s final move, van Aert had the legs to make the three-man split after a day sat in the armchair.
It seemed fitting that van Aert and Pidcock went on to set up the photo finish in Berg en Terblijt – the duo were the two strongest riders, and they had the strongest teams. There was no piece missing from the puzzle in the way there was at Trek-Segafredo.
Wout van Aert learns from past mistakes
In the very last race of his 2021 classics campaign, Wout van Aert finally learned that less can be more.
Throughout the spring, the Belgian ace has shouldered the burden of being a top favorite for almost any race he’s started, but ridden as though he didn’t quite believe the billing.
At the E3 Saxo Bank Classic and Brabantse Pijl, van Aert took it on himself to do the work, whether through inexperience, nerves, or a swaggering show of strength. Van Aert blew himself up with a spectacular attack at the E3 in March, and only last week, burned half a match pulling Pidcock toward the finish line only to have the Brit outsprint him in Overijse.
On Sunday, van Aert played it cool.
With Primož Roglič, Jonas Vingegaard, and Sam Oomen packing the firepower to do the defending, Van Aert cooled his jets around 20 wheels back as his teammates neutralized the threats, and only once did any work himself. Unlike at the E3 and Brabantse Pijl, van Aert still had a match to burn when it mattered the most in the final 500 meters.
Much like when he won at Gent-Wevelgem, van Aert showed himself Sunday that you’ve got to be smart as well as strong to win bike races.
Marianne Vos is still the boss
Nearly nine years after winning her second world title in Valkenburg, Marianne Vos again took the top step in Limburg.
When Vos moved to the newly formed Jumbo-Visma squad at the start of the season, questions could have been raised over whether she was hunting out an easy exit to her career, comfortable in a Dutch squad, and bathing in her venerated status among home staffers and young teammates.
Six races later, the 33-year-old has shown that she’s not taking her foot off the accelerator any time yet.
Victories at Gent-Wevelgem and the Amstel Gold Race cap a stellar start to her 15th season as a pro in a winter that has never seen her finish below 12th-place. While Vos is more reliant on her massive sprint now than she was a decade ago, Sunday proved that the Dutchwoman can still match the best when the road goes uphill.
With two new races added to her huge trophy haul already this spring and her Jumbo-Visma team looking to step up to the WorldTour next year, it’s clear Vos won’t be closing her career on the quiet.
Tom Pidcock enters top-tier of classics contenders
Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel have been warned. Tom Pidcock isn’t just a name to worry about in the cyclocross winter.
Pidcock has been growing in confidence and form with every ride since barreling into his debut WorldTour season with third-place at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. At both Sunday’s Amstel and the previous Brabantse Pijl, the 21-year-old has confirmed himself as a fourth “galactico” to match the likes of Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, and Julian Alaphilippe in the European spring.
What a race from the boys today. Numbers to the fore and attacks everywhere 👊
🥈 @Tompid confirmed in second. His sensational season continues.
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) April 18, 2021
Pidcock showed he had the power and aggression when he parachuted into the “opening weekend” in February with two standout rides. The last few days in the Ardennes showed he also has the poise and racecraft to back it up.
Pidcock’s confidence in leaving van Aert to do the pulling at Brabantse Pijl and his poise in choosing his moment to attack off the back of Michał Kwiatkowski’s move in the finale Sunday showed that Pidcock has the motor and the maturity to match his raw horsepower. At five years the junior of van Aert and van der Poel, there’s a lot more to come from Tom Pidcock.
Circuit races aren’t so bad after all
Circuit races have a reputation for being stale and snoozy. The organizers of the Amstel Gold Race tipped that notion on its head with its Limburg loop.
Also read: How organizers saved the Amstel Gold Race
The 17-kilometer circuit conjured up for Sunday’s race was perfectly balanced – difficult but not too difficult, technical but not one for specialists, the lap matched rolling hills with recovery windows and open highways with country lanes. The three climbs that punctuated the circuit were tough but not so hard that only the climbers could survive, and the fast descents and a handful of pinchpoints offered launchpads for attacks.
The result? Two open, dynamic races.
As always, the women’s race was a firecracker with attacks flying throughout the race, and Grace Brown’s long-range escape epitomized how the Limburg lap invited aggression. The men’s race was a slow burn before sparking into life for almost two hours of punch and counter-punch that saw the two smartest and strongest riders share the photo finish.
Race boss Leo van Vliet built a route that set a new standard for circuit racing this weekend. If it comes back in 2022, I wouldn’t be complaining.