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The cobblestones and bergs remain the same, but this season’s classics are going to be like no other.
The result? The northern classics, notorious for chaotic and unpredictable action, could become wilder than ever.
With cobbled racing kicking in hard this week at Friday’s E3 Saxo-Bank Classic and Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem, teams are braced for a whole shift in approach as they take the fight to the two kings of the one-day scene.
A full press on the favorites
Ever since 2019 when van der Poel flattened the field with an unforgettable comeback victory in the Amstel Gold Race and van Aert stitched together a series of top finishes in his first spring with Jumbo-Visma, the terrible twosome has increasingly tightened its grip around the neck of the classics scene.
All through 2020 and into 2021, one-day racing has become the “Mathieu van der Wout show,” with regular guest appearances from close contender Julian Alaphilippe. Behind them, the likes of Jasper Stuyven, Mads Pedersen, Alexander Kristoff, and Yves Lampaert have been picking through the leftovers.
But that could all change this season as rivals lock their attention on van Aert and van der Poel.
A reshuffling among heavyweight teams has seen AG2R-Citroën unite Greg van Avermaet with Oliver Naesen, and UAE-Team Emirates combine Matteo Trentin with Kristoff.
At the same time, Trek-Segafredo captains Pedersen and Stuyven are hitting their prime. Lotto-Soudal leaders Philippe Gilbert and John Degenkolb have been slow out the gate, but when the veterans dust off the cobwebs, they have the know-how to win the hardest of northern races.
And of course, Deceuninck-Quick-Step is still Quick-Step, as multifaceted as ever and champing at the bit to take on the cobbles it has made its raison d’etre.
“Van Aert and van der Poel are really strong, can climb, and are fast. They can finish alone or in a sprint,” Deceuninck-Quick-Step director Tom Steels said. “Their presence changes races, and the way we race.”
“We have to play with the power we have in the team, alongside the ability of Alaphilippe to match them,” Steels told VeloNews. “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.”
Deceuninck-Quick-Step has long made moving a full pack of burly Belgians to the front of the classics its trademark, and Patrick Lefevere again stated this winter that his team’s ability to isolate major threats gives them the advantage.
Lefevere’s winning formula is being mirrored as teams look to outflank and outmaneuver you-know-who and his archrival.
“The real idea is to be in the final with numbers, with two or maybe three, instead of just one,” Trek-Segafredo director Guercilena said. “That is the only option to beat the other riders [van Aert and van der Poel]. It’s the same plan that Deceuninck used, and that is the best way to win the races.”
Ag2r-Citröen is adopting the same process, bringing training buddies Naesen and van Avermaet together and also signing tenacious support guy Michael Schär to add further heft.
UAE-Emirates has the numbers but is looking to play its cards differently, with the grizzled staying-power of Kristoff acting as a foil to the attacking punch of new recruit Trentin.
“Kristoff has won most of these races his career but without the climbing capacity of a lot of these guys, while Trentin’s a guy who could possibly follow those key players,” team director Allan Peiper told VeloNews. “Trentin can make a front group, and with Kristoff behind it take some pressure away from Trentin in the front as he knows we’ll have an option behind.”
Throw in an extra wildcard of Fernando Gaviria for a sprint in “carriage three,” of the UAE-Team Emirates express train, and the team is hoping to cover all angles.
Rather than seeing such new multi-leader teams on the scene as a threat, Deceuninck-Quick-Step is welcoming the arrival of reinforcements.
“They’re more allies, I think,” the Deceuninck-Quick-Step director said. “People that will make the race hard will always benefit everybody else with numbers. The more pressure the others [van Aert and van der Poel] are under, the better.”
More dynamic, more disruptive racing
Teams are not going to be relying on sheer brawn to derail van der Poel or van Aert given the two tyrants are individually the strongest of the bunch. With multiple options to play, directors are anticipating more explosive and uncontrollable racing as they look to outflank and grind down “MvdP” and his foe.
“We all know that there’s two – or three – guys to watch,” Peiper said, referring to Alaphilippe. “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.”
With teams more cautious about van Aert and van der Poel than ever before, directors are hoping to upset the party by bringing dynamite to the typical diesel-grind attrition of the cobblestone races.
“I hope and I suspect the races will break open much earlier this year,” Steels said. “The finals will start earlier, there will be some surprises I think in terms of tactics. It’s going be a completely different spring season that’s for sure.”
Could that backfire?
The likes of van Aert and van der Poel can go to the line with any one of their rivals in a one-on-one slugfest and would welcome harder racing rather than the lottery of a bunch sprint, as seen at Sanremo or Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, both of which were won by ‘other’ riders. But in the pavé and punishment of the northern classics, “flooding the zone” makes the risk of untimely punctures, mechanicals, or injuries collateral damage rather than a race-ending disaster.
The veteran staffers in charge of teams such as Deceuninck-Quick-Step and UAE-Team Emirates are old and wise enough to know that ultimately, victory in the mayhem of the cobbled classics is a cocktail of racing instinct, magic in the legs, and the alignment of the stars. And then throw the veritable landmine of van der Poel into the middle of the field, and riders will have to be braced for anything.
“The unpredictability of van der Poel at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne going at 90 kilometers to go when everyone was waiting for the Kwarement at 50km just leads to the fact that anything can happen,” Peiper said. “We really need to be ready for the unexpected.”
Whether they’re winning or not, van der Poel and van Aert may have radically shifted the shape of the classics from the stones of Strade Bianche to the pavé of Paris-Roubaix.