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With or without them, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel shaped ‘opening weekend’

Riders agree that Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert have enormous influences on the classics — no matter if they're present or not.

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Two races, two different outcomes; Belgium’s “opening weekend” was marked by two riders — one who was there, and another who wasn’t.

Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad ended in a rare sprint, while Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne saw its script almost upended. The looming absence of Wout van Aert at Omloop, and the disrupting presence of Mathieu van der Poel at Kuurne marked both races.

It’s rare that individual riders can produce such different outcomes simply based on whether or not they are at the start line. Add two of them into the mix of the classics season, and it’s becoming apparent that they’re emerging as the riders of reference in the brutal world of one-day racing.

“Without them, we’ll have a better chance of winning,” said Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) before Omloop. “Of course, I am joking, but it’s true there is a lot of commentary about these big names. For sure, they are really good riders, but the race always has to be ridden. It’s not that if Wout van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel are not at the start that the others can win. Anything can happen, but for sure, I have in mind that Wout van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel are not at the start [at Omloop].”

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Are van Aert and van der Poel so strong that they can change the outcome of a race?

Yes — and many riders believe so. More than ever, the peloton is packed with power and depth across the classics, yet this weekend’s races revealed just how much impact each of them have on any race they start, and even in the ones they don’t.

First sprint finish at Omloop in a decade

Neither van Aert or van der Poel raced Saturday’s Omloop, the traditional opener of the classics season. The route is typically a preview of what lies ahead in the northern classics season, with the top favorites bashing the pedals over the famous bergs and sectors of pavé that will mark Flanders Week later in the spring.

With neither in the race – van Aert doesn’t race on the road until this weekend at Strade Bianche while van der Poel opted for Kuurne on Sunday following his return from the UAE Tour — there was a sense of deadlock within the bunch.

No singular rider or team was capable of breaking the stranglehold of the race.

One man tried. Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) went on a solo flyer after attacking out of the lead group over the Berendries with 30km to go. With nobody to ride alongside him, the French star was eventually brought back by the group.

How would Alaphilippe’s attack have played out had van der Poel and van Aert been in the race? It’s tough to say. At last year’s Tour of Flanders, we saw Alaphilippe attack with 37km to go, and the acceleration drew out van der Poel and van Aert. The move proved to be the race-defining moment, and only a crash with a motorcycle kept Alaphilippe from contesting the finale.

It’s a hypothetical question with no answer, of course. Still, it’s worth wondering whether Alaphilippe’s attack on Saturday would have sparked a response from van Aert and van der Poel. Such a group would have likely had the horsepower to stay away.

Yet no groups stayed away, and instead Omloop Het Nieuwsblad saw the peloton chase back attack after attack.

Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r-Citroën) lamented as much Saturday, who rode in at the middle of front group in 33rd.

“I had hoped for a tougher race,” Van Avermaet said. “After Alaphilippe’s attack, it was difficult to get the chase going. It was difficult to make a difference towards Ninove and if we go to the finish with such a group, I don’t stand a chance. It’s a pity that I couldn’t get a result, but it was a bit atypical with that sprint. ”

Omloop usually sees small elite groups or even individual riders fending off a frenetic chase. The last big group to contest for the flowers was when Thor Hushovd won in 2009, leading in a group of 18 across the line. On Sunday, Davide Ballerini (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) won out of a very large front group of 45.

There were other factors in play, including mild weather, a slight headwind coming back to the finish, and a race calendar that’s seen several key early season races canceled or postponed. So that meant the bunch was at a similar level, and racing in good conditions. Also missing was Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), sidelined by a COVID-19 infection.

“It was a different race just because of the headwind. I thought it could actually be a sprint today already, like 50-60km before the finish,” said Bahrain-Victorious rider Heinrich Haussler, fourth at Omloop. “Usually, at the ‘opening weekend,’ we have like only 3-4 degrees, rain, crosswinds, like ice, really filthy conditions, but this year it wasn’t like that.”

Of course, no one will ever know what would have happened if van Aert or van der Poel were in the race on Saturday. The outcome, however, certainly suggested Omloop was missing someone to really break open the action.

Without that disruptive force, Deceuninck-Quick-Step stacked the front of the race, with top-form fast-man Ballerini waiting in the wings. It would have taken a Herculean effort to change the outcome.

‘Everyone is talking about those two’

Mathieu Van Der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) drives the pace during the 73rd Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne 2021 on Sunday. (Photo by Peter De Voecht – Pool/Getty Images)

Sunday’s race was a contrast in style, with an early breakaway almost making it to the line to disrupt the traditional reduced bunch sprint finale at Kuurne.

Tracing over gentler terrain than Saturday’s Omloop, it’s more common to see a relatively large bunch sprint at Kuurne than at Omloop. Such riders as Mark Cavendish and Dylan Groenewegen have won the race during the past decade.

Sunday’s early breakaway, however, would have been all but doomed much early than when it was neutralized with less than 2km to go.

Why? One name — Mathieu van der Poel.

The Dutch star, racing for just the second day on the road in 2021, roared out of the bunch with 80km to go. Ineos Grenadiers’ Jhonatan Narváez hitched a ride, and the pair bridged across to an early break before hitting the Oude Kwaremont. Almost single-handedly, van der Poel hurtled the group toward the finish line with real chances of holding off for a shot at the win.

After a protracted chase among some of the top teams, Trek-Segafredo scored another big win with Mads Pedersen, revealing that a strong team can take it to van der Poel or van Aert under the right conditions.

Teammate Jasper Stuyven admitted that teams are well aware of the presence of the two emerging powerhouses on the classics.

And Trek-Segafredo exploited van der Poel’s early aggression perfectly to set up the fast-finishing Pedersen to finish off a frenetic chase than van der Poel provoked.

“Everyone is talking about those two. For sure, they are the top favorites,” Stuyven said. “Are they unbeatable? Definitely not. There are more than those two, but if they have their super day, of course, they show they are at a really high level.

“But it is not as if I am going to a race and thinking that I can only finish third,” Stuyven said. “We sill have to race a bike race before a winner is known. It doesn’t mean they will dominate every single race. It’s a challenge for them, but also for us.”

The rise of van der Poel and van Aert — longtime rivals on cyclocross and now on the road — also evokes memories of the last major rivalry on the cobblestones with Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara.

Between them, they dominated the major monuments of France and Belgium, winning seven editions of Flanders and six editions of Roubaix between them in the years running from 2005 to 2014.

“I don’t like comparing between generations. Cancellara was Cancellara, and Boonen was Boonen. Now we have this generation,” said Deceuninck-Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere in a media call. “Do we have Wout van Aert on the team? No. Van der Poel? No.

“We have Alaphilippe, and around him, there are quite a few very strong riders,” he said. “And with the collective we saw Saturday, we still won.”

Perhaps it’s too early to call a start of a new era. Right now, only van der Poel, with Flanders last fall, counts one of the northern monuments on his palmarés, though both seemed destined to win many more.

And just like Cancellara and Boonen, who dominated the conversation for the better part of a decade, van der Poel and van Aert are quickly becoming the center of gravity of any race they start. And leave a black hole in the ones they skip as well.