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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — A 24-year-old Tour of Flanders rookie saved the day for classics powerhouse Deceuninck-Quick-Step, and he didn’t even know he was racing until Wednesday.
Kasper Asgreen joined Quick-Step last spring. He has never won a pro race. Yet he was one of the biggest surprises in a Flanders edition that saw the peloton’s stars in the peloton bash their legs in vain.
Asgreen marked a late-race attack by Sky’s Dylan Van Baarle, and then rode the leading group off his wheel to finish second behind Alberto Bettiol (EF-Education First).
Asgreen couldn’t believe he ended up on the Flanders podium in his first crack at one of cycling’s most prestigious races. What a way to debut at Flanders.
“At the start line this morning, I was pinching myself,” Asgreen said. “To be up there in the final is really unexpected for me.”
Asgreen’s presence in Quick-Step’s seven-man roster was a bit of a surprise. The Belgian super-team thrives on the classics, and there are more than a dozen riders on the team’s roster who could have raced Sunday.
Quick-Step made the somewhat surprising pick to add Asgreen based on one simple fact — he is extremely strong right now. What everyone saw on Sunday was already noticed by team staffers over the past few weeks.
“We had 11 riders who could have raced today,” said Quick-Step sport director Wilfried Peters. “After how he was racing these past few races, we knew we had to bring him to Flanders.”
Asgreen was told that he would replace French rider Florian Senechal, who raced on last year’s winning team, following Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday.
For Asgreen, the tip to start the Ronde was a dream come true. He had little idea what would be awaiting him on the roads of Flanders.
“I used to watch Flanders every spring with my parents,” said the soft-spoken Dane. “One of my heroes growing up was [Philippe] Gilbert, with the way he attacked and how raced was an inspiration to me. Sometimes when I am at the camp or I am in a race, and I am looking over, f—king hell, I am on the same team as Gilbert!”
Asgreen rode more like an icy veteran than the eyes-wide-open rookie he seemed like at the start-line in Antwerp. His team orders were to follow mid-race breakaways, and then help position the captains going into the major climbs.
Asgreen soon proved Peters was right.
After Asgreen marked the Van Baarle move, he had the strength to be able to stay on the wheels as the race pedaled into the final string of demanding bergs. He called in over the race radio and complained of cramps, but managed to keep following over the final passage up the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg.
“He rode for the team all day, but he got himself in position to ride for himself, and he took it with both hands,” Peters said. “He was told to cover any breaks, and he did that, and then finished on the podium — superb!”
Alberto Bettiol’s searing attack on the final run up Oude Kwaremont gapped everyone, and that’s how Asgreen unexpectedly found himself in the throes of the race in the final moments.
Asgreen followed the wheels onto the flats coming back into Oudenaarde, and it soon became obvious that the race was on for second. With Belgian national champion Yves Lampaert sitting on the wheels, Quick-Step’s best option for the podium looked like setting him up for a bunch sprint.
With about 2km to go, Asgreen ramped up the speed, but suddenly found himself alone at the front. Rather than sit up or hesitate, he just kept piling on.
“We were trying to set up the sprint for Yves [Lampaert], and everyone realized we were going for second place,” Asgreen said. “I was trying to keep the speed up in the group, and I had Bob [Jungels] on my wheel, and then he let me go, and I can hold that all the way to the line.”
Asgreen’s strength came shining through in the final thousand meters. The chasing group was coming up fast from behind, with the likes of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) sprinting for the podium. Asgreen held them off single-handedly and finished just a few seconds ahead of third-place Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Emirates).
Peters’s decision to go for power over experience paid off with a Flanders-saving podium for the home team.
“We chose him because he was strong even though he didn’t have any experience,” Peters said. “He took the chance with both hands.”
Asgreen’s exploits Sunday earned him a slot on live TV in his native Denmark. On Friday, during the team’s media day, almost no one talked to him. On Sunday, he was the star of the show.
“There is still a long way to go before you call yourself a leader on the team. I am still looking for my first win,” he said. “I tried a few times after the Paterberg and immediately you had the group on your wheel. You really needed to do a sneak attack like this.”
Quick-Step lived up to expectations to be on the podium Sunday. No one expected it to be from a rider who’d never raced it before.