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Analysis: A surprising parity as peloton powers toward Tour of Flanders

The depth and quality in both the men's and women's pelotons will deliver unpredictable racing tactics at Tour of Flanders.

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All spring, the mantra has been Wout and Mathieu.

Ask anyone, and the answer was like a playback loop: Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel are going to crush the spring classics.

And it was the same thing early on in the women’s peloton. SD Worx was back to its preeminence, and everyone else would be racing for scraps. Or so it seemed.

A funny thing happened along the way from Sienna to Oudenaarde. Though the dashing duo of van Aert and van der Poel have delivered some epic results, and Anna van der Breggen & Co. plowed to early wins, a few other steely actors refused to bow.

In fact, rather than seeing the dawn of a new era dominated by two riders or the hegemony of one team, the 2021 classics season is instead revealing a deeper, much more competitive peloton than many expected.

So what’s happening? Let’s take a look.

Racing more balanced than expected

Despite some expectations that “VanderWout” and SD Worx would dominate everything, it’s been surprisingly balanced since “opening weekend” in Belgium.

Let’s take a quick look at the results:

SD Worx won Omloop and Strade Bianche in domineering fashion, but four other major one-days have gone to four different teams. Elisa Longo Borghini of Trek-Segafredo won Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Grace Brown won for Team BikeExchange at De Panne, while Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) and van Vleuten (Movistar) won at Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars, respectively.

Any one of those riders, plus another baker’s dozen, could win Sunday at Flanders.

For the men, it’s no surprise that Deceuninck-Quick-Step is leading in the win column. So far, it’s won Omloop with Davide Ballerini, De Panne with Sam Bennett, and E3 Saxo Bank Classic with Kasper Asgreen. In all three, DQS went back to its tried-and-true tactic of playing multiple cards to stretch the opposition.

Trek-Segafredo has emerged nicely with the double tandem of Mads Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven, and the pair delivered two big wins at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and Milano-Sanremo, respectively, helping to revive the team’s expectations follow a few year fallow years.

The other major one-days — Strade Bianche, Gent-Wevelgem, and Dwars — have seen singular winners. Dylan Van Baarle delivered an overdue victory at Dwars with a 50km solo attack, while pre-season favorites van der Poel and van Aert have only won once each.

The takeaways? With so many top riders racing for so few trophies, balance is more par for the course than might be expected. It’s only the rare season, like in 2017 when Greg Van Avermaet — who won four and podiumed twice in eight spring classics — that a singular rider can dominate the entire peloton.

Teams altering tactics

There’s no denying the influence on the men’s peloton of the rise of van der Poel and van Aert, and teams are admitting as much.

Many are already comparing their growing rivalry to Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara, both in their ability to win races, but also alter the tactics of everyone around them.

Also read: Will van Aert-van der Poel rivalry top Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara’s?

When both are in the race, teams know they need to pivot.

“We know they are super-strong, but we have been able to show that we can also win races like Gent-Wevelgem [in 2020] and now Milano-Sanremo,” Trek-Segafredo general manager Luca Guercilena said. “The real idea is to be in the final with numbers, with two or maybe three, instead of just one. That is the only option to beat them [van Aert and van der Poel]. You have to find a moment when you can take advantage, and make a move.”

Teams like Trek-Segafredo and Deceuninck-Quick-Step, the proud purveyors of pain on the pavé, can become natural allies on the road. With all eyes on van Aert and van der Poel, teams have shown they can turn that to their advantage.

“Their presence changes races, and the way we race,” Deceuninck-Quick-Step director Tom Steels said. “The advantage that we have with us is that whoever’s not at the front with van der Poel or van Aert can also win the race – and that has to be our mind and tactics.”

DQS played everything to perfection at E3 Saxo Bank Classic, long a precursor of success at Flanders and Roubaix. Asgreen attacked twice in a tactical masterpiece by the Belgian outfit.

SD-Worx hot start to 2021 provoked a similar plotline in the women’s peloton.

After roaring out of the gates, with big wins at Omloop, Strade Bianche, and Nokere Koerse, it appeared the new-look Dutch powerhouse was back to its dominating best.

Also read: Tactical masterclass at Strade Bianche

Yet teams like Trek-Segafredo and Jumbo-Visma seemed to be saving their best for when it counted most. Borghini and Vos both delivered scintillating victories over the following weekends to remind everyone that smart tactics and stronger legs will always deliver results.

Wednesday’s victory by Annemiek van Vleuten at Dwars door Vlaanderen only raises the stakes coming into the heart of the women’s classics season.

“We know it will not always be us winning every time,” said SD Worx sport director Danny Stam. “We have had a nice start to the season, but sometimes the coin will land on the other side for other teams. We cannot sit back and be happy with what we have.”

Teammates still count

Zdeněk Štybar is a key member of the Deceuninck-Quick-Step classics crew. Photo: Nico Vereecken-Pool/Getty Images

Vos’s big win Sunday at Gent-Wevelgem came thanks to help from teammates who helped control a late-race move, and set up a reduced bunch gallop. Even van Aert, who also won Sunday, could thank his teammate Nathan Van Hooydonck for playing a decisive role in delivering victory.

“When we finally managed to catch Longo Borghini and Paladin, I was so eager to finish it for the team,” Vos said. “Everyone worked so hard today. Fortunately, the team had confidence in me and I knew I had a good chance if I would not make any mistakes.”

If there’s a thorn in van der Poel’s side, it’s that he’s often left isolated without teammates.

Alpecin-Fenix’s relative weakness against the deeper WorldTour powerhouses means that he often has no one to help him close gaps. At E3, when rival van Aert punctured late, he could count on Jumbo-Visma teammates to tow him back to the front group. In contrast, van der Poel has to chase everything down himself.

Rivals are quick to exploit that opening.

Deceuninck-Quick-Step, whose domination of the pavé dates back decades, has long flooded the zone, bringing many cards to play in every scenario. And so far, DQS is attacking that weakness, especially against van der Poel.

Team boss Patrick Lefevere is relishing the chance to race against the peloton’s two new hottest stars, and perhaps put them in their place as well.

“If we can keep the strength of the team and this spirit of the team — the ‘Wolfpack’ as we call it — then you know what wolves do with their victims?” Lefevere asked. “They isolate them, and that’s what we’re going to do in the next few months.”

That tactic worked like a charm at E3 Saxo Bank Classic, when the team all but neutralized van der Poel and van Aert going into the final hour of racing by sending Kasper Asgreen up the road twice.

Deceuninck-Quick-Step identified the new challenge, created a tactical solution, and executed it with perfection. It worked well at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3 Harelbeke. Will it work again Sunday?

Also read: DQS delivers tactical masterpiece at E3

And even Jumbo-Visma alters its tactics when van der Poel is in a race. Van Aert and van der Poel have been banging elbows since they were teenagers. The stakes might be higher now at the WorldTour, but the desire to win remains eternal.

“It’s not just about beating van der Poel, and Wout knows that,” said Jumbo-Visma sport director Arthur van Dongen said. “They will always battle each other, because they are similar riders and they share this history. There is also Alaphilippe and other riders. It won’t be Wout versus Mathieu in every race.

“Wout knows he doesn’t only have to beat van der Poel. He wants to win against everyone.”

More investment into classics

Across both the men’s and women’s peloton, teams are deeper and have invested more in the classics. This is a trend that started more than a decade ago, and it’s paying dividends across both the men’s and women’s peloton.

The classics calendar has become even more important for the women’s peloton. Nearly all the major WorldTour classics now offer both men’s and women’s races, which immediately elevate the profile and importance of the spring dates. In fact, one major team director was complaining that having the spring calendar so packed with major one-day races that it is having a negative impact on the summer stage races.

The arrival of a women’s Paris-Roubaix — a race that will likely be postponed in 2021 — will only heighten the focus on the classics.

Also read: Everyone wants to be the first to win Paris-Roubaix Femmes

“Last season, we proved that we are capable of being with the best, and we finished at the top of all the rankings,” said Guercilena, who also helps manage Trek-Segafredo’s women’s team. “Every season is different, and we have seen a couple of teams are progressing very fast. We are looking at the classics to confirm our potential. We have some good additions to the team and we can be here for the big victories.”

Also read: How Trek-Segafredo rebuilt its classics program 

Teams across the men’s peloton have also invested more into the classics. Part of it is driven by bike manufacturers, which also want results on the high-profile stage second only to the Tour de France in terms of exposure.

The arrival of van Aert and van der Poel comes along after more than a decades-long expansion of fan and media interest and enhanced resources by teams on the one-day classics.

And many can thank Peter Sagan for that. Though the three-time world champion is slow out of the gates in 2021 due to a COVID-19 infection, Sagan helped push a new generation of fans toward the classics.

“I see an even better generation now than with Fabian and Tom,” said Guercilena, who managed Cancellara throughout his career. “When they were racing, they were the two guys fighting very hard in all the big races until Peter Sagan came.

“Now today, you have many winners,” he said. “Now you have them [van der Poel and van Aert], you have Alaphilippe, [Marc] Hirschi, [Remco] Evenepoel when he will be back. And we can also say Jasper and Mads, so it is a generation that is very, very competitive.

“There are a bunch of young kids who are very good, so we are looking at a good five, six years of very exciting racing.”

Other teams, including Ag2r-Citroën, UAE-Team Emirates, Bora-Hansgrohe, Israel Start-Up Nation, and even Movistar — which signed Iván García Cortina specifically to race on the cobbles — is getting into the act with more gusto.

Also read: Movistar hopes to broaden ambitions in classics

“We all know that there’s two – or three – guys to watch,” said UAE’s Allan Peiper, adding Julian Alaphilippe to the mix. “But the exciting part is that everyone thought Milano-Sanremo was going to be won by one of those guys, but it was Jasper Stuyven. I think that gives thought to other riders about how they want to race and anticipating and making a more open race.”

Parity in 2021 — who would have guessed?