If Belgium’s “opening weekend” showed us anything, it was to remind us that the spring classics always deliver surprises.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad ended with its first big-group gallop since 2009, and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne almost saw its traditional script almost ripped apart when a long-distance breakaway was only caught within two kilometers of the line.
There’s been plenty of media hype coming into this year’s classics season around the growing rivalry between Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert. And nearly everyone agrees that those two will be five-star favorites in every race they start.
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But if history teaches us anything, it’s that the classics are the most unpredictable and surprising races on the elite men’s calendar. There’s no tomorrow in one-day racing, no time limit to hit, and no point in saving the legs. It’s win or go home, and wait until next year.
It’s obvious that van Aert and van der Poel have emerged as the best classics duo since Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara. Yet even in their heyday, those two now-retired stars didn’t win everything, either.
What’s all but certain is that this year’s classics season will be much more than van der Poel and van Aert.
The pair comes along just as the elite men’s peloton is perhaps at its most competitive and deepest it’s ever been. More teams are bringing more firepower than ever to the spring classics.
Classics field deeper than ever
Behind the “VanderWout” power couple image is a peloton absolutely packed with riders trying to fight and scrap their way onto the winner’s podium in 2021.
No longer are the classics dominated and controlled by Deceuninck-Quick-Step, whose reign on the cobbles of northern France and Belgium has largely gone unchallenged for 20 years. Sure, the occasional individual rider could challenge the Belgian outfit, like a Cancellara, or the one-off winner like a Stuart O’Grady or Mat Hayman to rewrite the script, but year in and year out, it was Patrick Lefevere and his self-styled Wolfpack that would prowl on the pavé.
Lefevere now finds himself without either one of the ascending stars of the classics, and that will make things even more interesting this classics season.
Who Lefevere does have in his quiver is Julian Alaphilippe, a world champion who won his world title with panache, and vows to race exactly the same way. Unfortunately, “Alapanache” will only race Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège after his bloc of Italian racing that also includes Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milano-Sanremo. It would have been great to see him on the heavier classics, such as Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem as well.
Lefevere’s team will still pack a punch in this classics season even if he doesn’t have a marquee name. Riders such as Kasper Asgreen, Davide Ballerini, and Florian Senechel will see more opportunities, while the likes of Yves Lampaert and Zdeněk Štybar will be in the trenches when it counts.
Like Lefevere said this week, he hopes to isolate van der Poel and van Aert, and then attack. It will be some brilliant racing if they can manage to pull it off.
What’s unique about today’s generation is that many of the riders are not afraid to lose. Too often in cycling, riders seemed to race on the defensive, preferring to defend what they had rather than risk it all for a larger prize. That conservative mentality has completely evaporated over the past few seasons as a new generation of younger, ambitious, and highly talented riders have elbowed their way to the top of the pyramid.
That trend shook Ineos Grenadiers to its core in 2020. The UK team was shellacked at the Tour de France, and that brutal beating has helped trigger a complete transformation of the team’s attitude.
Team boss Dave Brailsford has promised the team would race more aggressively, and it certainly has spiced things up since the start of the season. It’s a shame we won’t be seeing Filippo Ganna on the pavé this spring — he’s steering clear in an Olympic year — but the team will bring some verve to the spring classics with the likes of Thomas Pidcock, third at Kuurne, and Dylan Van Baarle.
Established veterans not taking challenge sitting down
And it seems the veterans in the bunch have stepped up in light of the challenges from the generation behind.
Riders like Greg Van Avermaet, leading a recast Ag2r-Citroën, Philippe Gilbert and John Degenkolb at Lotto-Soudal, Sep Vanmarcke, and a resurgent Michael Matthews will all have something to say before spring is out. UAE-Emirates’ Matteo Trentin and Alexander Kristoff are always a force, and have the experience and engines to race into that magical “sixth hour” of racing that sets apart the monuments.
Trek-Segafredo, in particular, has created a very strong classics core built around Mads Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven. Last year, they won Omloop and Gent-Wevelgem between them, and Pedersen won Kuurne last week in dramatic fashion. The pair complement each other well, with Pedersen handling the reduced bunch sprints, and Stuyven packing the diesel to go on long-range sorties.
And of course there is Peter Sagan. Last year, he missed the rescheduled “fall” classics to fulfill his promise to race the Giro d’Italia.
Unfortunately, Sagan was infected with COVID-19 in January, and it’s hard to gauge how well he’s recovered ahead of the classics. He is skipping Strade Bianche and is expected to debut at Tirreno-Adriatico. It’s also hard to imagine we’ve heard the last of one of the most dominating riders of the past decade, especially with Bora-Hansgrohe’s new signing Nils Politt riding at his side.
The classics reward the strong and the brave, and there’s plenty of swagger around the peloton those days.
True, van der Poel and van Aert will be a factor in every race they start, but it’s equally as true they will not win every race they start.
During the classics, the only thing that counts is that moment. It’s one day, one race, with everything on the line. And anyone can win.
And that’s why everyone — racers, teams, and fans alike — enjoys them so much.