Boom — each won one big race apiece. Bust — both ran into stiffer competition and raced with heavier legs than anyone expected. It all came to a crescendo Sunday at Tour of Flanders.
It depends on how you measure it.
Van der Poel and van Aert were at the center of every race they started, but they were far from winning each race. Rivals, race dynamics, and luck became foils during the past several weeks.
Coming out of the winter, just about every pundit on the sidelines and many inside the peloton expected the dynamic duo to sweep the spring classics. Flash forward to April, and the outcomes were quite a bit different than the odds-makers were predicting.
What happened? Here are a few reasons why the pair faced more headwinds than expected:
Team tactics still rule the classics
Cycling’s been a team sport since racers started racing under sponsor and national jerseys. It’s hard to win when you’re all alone, and even more so in the modern era of racing.
The classics, especially at the monument distance north of 200km, typically boil down to the strongest in the pot going into that magical sixth hour of racing. Friendly jerseys, however, always prove decisive in every scenario leading up to that point.
And throughout the classics, both van Aert and van der Poel were reminded of that axiom in every race they started.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere carved out of a career based on overloading the classics with a team full of pavé brawlers. Many wondered if his “flood-the-zone” tactical playbook would work against the likes of “VanderWout,” and he proved all the naysayers wrong.
Also read: Quick-Step’s tactical masterpiece at E3
Lefevere’s cobblestone wrecking crew won four of the nine major one-day classics so far in 2021. Two more went to Trek-Segafredo, the other major WorldTour team that brought a multi-pronged approach to the classics. Van Aert’s Jumbo-Visma and van der Poel’s Alpecin-Fenix won one apiece, with Ineos Grenadiers taking the other win with Dylan Van Baarle’s solo win at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
All four of Lefevere’s victories this spring came on the backs of strong teammates, and having extra cards to play. When flares from Julian Alaphilippe didn’t stick at the classics opening at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Davide Ballerini was hovering in the bunch to win the sprint. Kasper Asgreen’s victory at E3 Saxo Bank Classic was a textbook example of Lefevere’s playbook, and was the masterpiece of the spring.
Van der Poel won Strade Bianche on singular brutal strength and desire, but he was often caught out in key moments across the spring campaign. Quick-Step rode as a unit to isolate and then attack him.
Also read: Teams adjust to new classics hierarchy
Van Aert’s lone big win in the spring campaign at Gent-Wevelgem came thanks to the presence of teammates. The presence of teammate Nathan van Hooydonck, who helped drive the pace to assure the winning move stuck, and then helped set up van Aert for the reduced bunch sprint.
Both Alpecin-Fenix and Jumbo-Visma will need to bolster their classics rosters going into 2022 if they want to take a step up. Van Aert and van der Poel are both charismatic and era-defining riders, but Quick-Step’s self-styled “Wolfpack” proved yet again that a cohesive group is stronger than one singular rider over the long haul.
Targets on their back
Both riders also had targets on their back throughout the classics.
The spotlight inevitably follows victories and domination. It was rare that either van der Poel or van Aert could move when one of their chief rivals wasn’t right on their wheel.
On their day, both riders are capable of riding anyone off their wheel. Yet Quick-Step and Trek-Segafredo both demonstrated that by packing the bunch with numbers they could neutralize and exploit the effectiveness of their individual strength.
Having said that, this spring was not marked by negative racing. Quick-Step wasn’t racing so that another rider would lose but instead, went on the attack to win. Asgreen’s victory Sunday at Tour of Flanders came thanks to superior strength against van der Poel. When van der Poel jumped, Asgreen had the legs to go with him.
It’s one thing to follow a target; it’s quite something else to win.
Going too deep, too soon
A lot has been made about how deep van Aert and van der Poel went during Tirreno-Adriatico.
Van der Poel even admitted as much in a pre-Flanders press call, saying that his all-in efforts in Italy might have caught up with him. It was perhaps those burying-the-needle efforts to win Strade Bianche and his epic solo victory at stage 5 at Tirreno that might have cost him in the final sprint into Oudenaarde on Sunday.
Van Aert also said by fighting so hard for the GC at Tirreno, where he was second to Tadej Pogačar in the overall, might have left him short on fumes for some of the key moments in the classics.
It seemed all spring that both riders were lacking just a bit of the horsepower and explosiveness that saw them light up 2019 and 2020 in such dramatic fashion. They each had their impressive moments, but they didn’t dominate in every race in the way that many expected.
Their commitment to race cyclocross also is a factor. Many believe that cross racing helps give the pair advantage in the spring classics, but the lack of down-time and a break could have a negative impact as well. With last season’s road season stretching well into October, van der Poel in particular barely had much time off the bike. That’s helped him stay at a higher level, but it also means that he’s burning more matches than anyone.
A few have pointed out how van der Poel has never ridden a grand tour and how his cyclocross/mountain bike-tuned engine might be a few watts short in the final hour of racing in a monument. If that’s a factor, it seems to be a small one.
Both riders coming into the spring classics knew their time was limited. In fact, neither had planned to race beyond Paris-Roubaix anyway this spring. Roubaix’s postponement is seeing van Aert opting to race Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold Race, but van der Poel is heading to the beach.
Not the dawning of an era everyone expected
Some thought this spring would be the consecration of the van der Poel-van Aert era.
The classics are indeed seeing a major transition, it’s just not going to be limited to two dominating riders in the same way as Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara ruled for nearly 15 years.
Today’s peloton is deeper and more committed to the classics than ever before. Just look at how the wins and podiums were spread among the peloton.
Of the nine major races from Omloop through Flanders, a handful of teams still dominate. Deceuninck-Quick-Step and Trek-Segafredo won six of the nine major races between them. Jumbo-Visma and Alpecin-Fenix won one apiece, with Ineos-Grenadiers winning Dwars.
Behind that, however, there are another half-dozen teams knocking on the door of the major races. Some 14 teams hit podiums in the nine major one-days, and 12 were among the WorldTour (only Alpecin-Fenix and Total-Direct Énergie were not among cycling’s super-league).
It seems only a matter of time before the likes of Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), Matteo Trentin (UAE-Emirates), Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-Citroën) and Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange) have a major win. A new crop of classics riders are coming up, including Tom Pidcock and Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers), Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) and Iván García Cortina (Movistar) are waiting in the wings.
Veteran riders such Greg Van Avermaet, third Sunday at Flanders, and Peter Sagan, who helped signal the end of the Boonen-Cancellara era, will still be factors.
There is indeed a new generation taking hold of the classics, but it’s going to be much more than a two-rider show.
The 2021 classics campaign proved the future will be more exciting and more unpredictable than ever.