Road

The return of Mathieu van der Poel changes everything at opening weekend of classics

Dutch supremo's presence – and absence – could change the way both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne are raced.

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There were faint embers of hope burning within the likes of Greg Van Avermaet, Alexander Kristoff and John Degenkolb in the middle of this week. Mathieu van der Poel wasn’t going to be racing at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad or Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne at the weekend, and the door was wide open for a fair fight.

Van der Poel promptly put a big boot into the middle of those flickering hopes Thursday afternoon with the confirmation that he would be racing Kuurne on Sunday.

The late arrival of van der Poel could change everything this weekend.

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Having been given the green light after his team’s COVID scare at the UAE Tour, the Alpecin-Fenix ace is sitting out the curtain-raising Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday but parachuting into Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne the day after to poop on the parade of Van Avermaet, Kristoff and a whole swathe of classics brawlers.

The heavyweight shadow of van der Poel will totally shift the way both of the races of the “opening weekend” will play out, whether he’s on the startline or not.

Racing could be more dynamic and aggressive than ever at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in van der Poel’s absence.

With no MvdP to worry about, riders will race to win rather than to mark out the Tour of Flanders champion in the hopes that luck will fall their way. And in his absence, powerful pairings such as Mads Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven at Trek-Segafredo and Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen at Ag2r-Citroën will have added incentive to punch a winning ticket. Get a victory when van der Poel isn’t racing and get the confidence up for when the Dutchman is throwing haymakers your way later in the year.

Van der Poel’s win in the Emirates proved you don’t want to take him to the line in a small group.

In contrast, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne could become a tight, tactical affair.

With some 50 kilometers of flat roads after the race’s final Kluisberg climb, the win is almost always contested by a small group scrapping for the win in the streets of Kuurne. And if van der Poel’s charging victory out of the front echelon at the UAE Tour proved anything, it’s that you don’t take the dazzling Dutchman to the line in a small group. Van der Poel beat back bunch-sprinters, grand tour winners, and hefty rouleurs in the Al Mirfa finale to prove he has the poise, racecraft, and outright power to outkick anyone after a winter racing in the mud.

The result of that?

Teams will want to do all they can to drop the ‘cross champ way before the line is in sight Sunday.

Deceuninck-Quick-Step, Trek-Segafredo, Lotto-Soudal, UAE Team Emirates, Ag2r-Citroën and Groupama-FDJ all have multiple aces up their sleeve for Kuurne. They’re going to have to use every one of those cards very wisely or Mathieu could be making it two-from-two in his short 2021 road season.