Well, the 2021 cobbled classics season was fun while it lasted.
Wednesday’s Scheldeprijs officially marked the end of the northern classics. And what a ride it was. It’s a shame we lost Paris-Roubaix for the second spring in a row, but as pandemic conditions stubbornly hang on across Europe, it’s nothing short of a spring miracle that the Flemish classics went off without major disruption.
“Racing behind closed doors” beats racing virtually any day for me.
Sunday’s tremendous editions of both the men’s and women’s races at Ronde van Vlaanderen, even if muted without millions of cheering fans, only underscores the power and intrigue of one-day racing. Only the high stakes of the Tour de France can match the classics.
So what to make of the past few weeks? The 2021 classics season was packed with surprises as well as confirmation of some familiar plot lines.
That Deceuninck-Quick-Step emerged as the most successful team across the northern classics shouldn’t come as a surprise. Patrick Lefevere has made a career perfecting his “flooding the zone” offense. I had serious doubts it would work against the rise of Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel.
Kasper Asgreen’s two major victories at E3 Harelbeke and Flanders were the best coming out party since that of Tom Boonen, nearly two decades ago. Did we just witness the emergence of a new superstar? Time will tell.
Coming into the spring season, I was convinced that the “Two Vans” — Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel — would smash the collective will of the Wolfpack. Well, I’m eating crow now.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step brings home the bacon
DQS came away with four victories and three podiums across the 10 major one-days. Unfortunately, we’ll never know how things would have gone in the Hell of the North (damn you, COVID).
In the 10 major races that count — Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Strade Bianche, Milano-Sanremo, De Panne, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars door Vlaanderen, De Ronde and Scheldeprijs — four victories in pretty impressive.
— Deceuninck-QuickStep (@deceuninck_qst) April 5, 2021
Just typing out the names of those races is a reminder of just how intense and limited the opportunities are for the classics riders. An entire season is judged by less than a dozen days of racing each spring. Talk about pressure. There’s no tomorrow, and the only thing that counts is today. That’s what makes the classics so appealing, but also so gut-wrenching.
Trek-Segafredo deserves kudos for its spring haul; two victories — KBK and MSR — with two different riders puts them right behind the Wolfpack. Mads Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven have both emerged as classics superstars over the past few seasons, and the Trek-Segafredo staff deserve credit for having the patience to rebuild that program in the wake of Fabian Cancellara’s retirement in 2016.
Only five teams won races across the 10 major dates. Four for DQS, two for Trek-Segafredo and Alpecin-Fenix, and one for Jumbo-Visma. The other? Ineos Grenadiers, which also hit two podiums to go along with Dylan van Baarle’s overdue and deserved victory at Dwars. And we thought they were only good at grand tours.
In total, 14 teams hit podiums across the 10 races. How deep did Greg van Avermaet dig for third at Flanders? Desire and suffering personified.
What happened to the ‘Two Vans’?
So what to make of “VanderWout” and their spring campaigns? Both came away with similar results; van der Poel won once (Strade Bianche in dramatic fashion) and hit two podiums, with third at E3 and second at Flanders. Van Aert won a Gent-Wevelgem, and was third at San Remo in one podium.
I still believe they’re the strongest, most exciting and charismatic riders we’ve seen in a decade. I’m also convinced they’ll be stronger and hungrier next season as a result of this spring campaign that served to remind them that nothing comes easy on the rough roads of Belgium, France, and Italy in the European spring.
You have the feeling that both were a bit over-cooked from racing so intensely from last fall and into the cyclocross season. Van der Poel hardly had a break and van Aert obviously has one eye on July, so they will probably take away some lessons that will pay off going forward.
What lessons are learned from this spring?
To take that next step in the classics, they both will need some more teammates, and both need to learn how to race the monuments with more nuance.
Both were often isolated without teammates relatively early in races, meaning they had to take on the responsibility themselves. Van Aert did see key support in E3, when teammates helped pace him back after puncturing, and in Gent-Wevelgem, when a teammate helped launch him to victory. Van der Poel rarely had a friendly jersey in the second half of most of the major races.
Also read: Van der Poel, van Aert run out of gas
As a result, they were both burning matches across the major races by constantly being forced to cover moves. They also seemed to race aggressively at times when they didn’t need to. It makes for great TV viewing, but this classics season revealed that that kind of unnecessary watts-burning can come back to bite you. DQS played off those dynamics perfectly and executed a strong offense of isolating and then attacking.
The upside of this weekend’s postponement? With Paris-Roubaix rescheduled for early October right after the “Flanders worlds,” at least we will all get a second serving of cobblestone heaven before the season is out. Maybe the occasional pandemic isn’t so bad after all (joking!).
Annemiek van Vleuten, a class of her own
Speaking of power, how impressive was Annemiek van Vleuten at Flanders?
To solo home after attacking on the Paterberg with seven of the strongest riders in the world chasing? Well, chapeaux to that.
Her Flanders flier came after — or perhaps in spite of — some hinting among pundits that her best might be behind her.
At 38, van Vleuten can use her experience and depth to brutal efficiency, and that played out in the final 15km Sunday.
Many were expecting to see SD Worx smash Flanders after its hot start to 2021, but Trek-Segafredo and Movistar stepped up nicely to keep things interesting. Women’s racing is deeper and more exciting than ever. I can’t wait to watch the Ardennes, where the women’s races are often more thrilling than the men’s.
And the craziest thing of all? Movistar won Flanders. I never thought I’d see that.
Kasper Asgreen: The gentle ‘Giant Killer’
This spring’s big winner on the men’s side is undoubtedly Kasper Asgreen. Winning E3 Harelbeke and Tour of Flanders puts him in elite company. In the past 25 years, 10 winners at Harelbeke went on to win Flanders or Roubaix.
And to do it against “VanderWout” elevates the accomplishment that much more.
Also read: How Harelbeke predicts success in monuments
The last time I spoke with Asgreen was atop one of those hideous hotels along Spain’s Mediterranean Coast. You know the type; 25 stories straight up that absolutely ruins the beachfront, but when you’re on top of one, the views are mind-blowing.
It was January 2020, and somewhere in China, a chain of events was about to bring the world to its knees, but we were oblivious to all that then in sunny Spain.
A few dozen of Europe’s cycling media were packed into the top floor of the hotel, where Patrick Lefevere and Co. were holding court for their annual media day.
Julian Alaphilippe and Remco Evenepoel were drawing the biggest crowds, but the most meaningful interview I had that day was with Asgreen. As soft-spoken as his motor is boundless, Asgreen is a thoughtful rider who appreciates the history and color of the sport. He seems to be more than a watts-producing machine capable of enduring pain beyond the realm of us mere mortals.
What race do you dream of winning? Without hesitation, he said Flanders.
Well, flash-forward 15 months and one pandemic later, and Asgreen’s dreams came true.
The gentle Giant-Killer – looks can be deceiving.
Alejandro Valverde wins at 40
Speaking of Movistar, Alejandro Valverde won a race over the weekend at GP Miguel Indurain at 40. In fact, he’s 41 later this month.
OK, it wasn’t a WorldTour race, but it was against a WorldTour field heading toward Itzulia Basque Country, arguably the hardest one-week stage race on the calendar. Impressive by any measure.
Maybe too impressive for some.
Valverde, of course, is one of the more controversial figures in the peloton, at least among his many detractors. He is one of the last — perhaps the last — active hold-overs from the Lance Armstrong era still active in the bunch. In fact, one of Valverde’s biggest wins came when he beat Big Tex at Courchevel at the 2005 Tour.
At home, he is cherished by many Spanish fans who admire his grit and aw-shucks public persona. For some, Valverde is the consummate professional. What struck me most was how many riders congratulated him at the finish line Saturday. Rider after rider from rival teams came up to shake his hand or give him a high-five. It reminded me of the same scene when Peter Sagan won the world title in Richmond. It seemed everyone in the bunch was happy to see him win.
For his critics, and there appear to be many, he’s a reminder of cycling’s dirtier, more opaque era.
For his harshest critics, there’s no forgiving him for keeping his mouth shut about the whole Puerto affair. Yes, his blood bags were found in a refrigerator, and yes, he served a racing ban. Did he write a tell-all book? Did he offer more than stoically serve his sentence? No. For some, that’s the unpardonable sin; that he did nothing overtly to contribute to the betterment of cycling.
Instead, Valverde kept his mouth shut, and kept racing. Valverde seems to think that winning races in today’s supposedly cleaner and more transparent peloton is enough. Is Valverde still up to the same old tricks? No one truly knows. If you believe the peloton is a much cleaner place than it was when he turned pro in 2002, Valverde’s continued success at the top of the sport before and after his ban is as amazing as it is perhaps unsettling.
Itzulia Basque Country – hardest race of the year
The postponement of Paris-Roubaix has one silver lining — Itzulia Basque Country has been in the headlines all week long.
By far, this is one of my favorite races on the calendar. I used to cover it every spring before heading up to Roubaix, and enjoyed getting lost in the deep hollows of Spain’s rugged Basque Country (not to mention the tapas bars in San Sebastián’s parte vieja).
So far, the weather has been a friend. Things could turn for the worse later this week, which will mean the racing will be even more demanding.
The race is contested in the heart of one of Europe’s true cycling heartlands. Flanders and Tuscany rank up there, but the Basque Country is certainly one of the most cycling-centric places on earth. The hilly region is almost a world apart, in geography, language, cuisine, and history. The Romans couldn’t squash it, and neither could Franco.
Today, the Basques are proudly independent, and they pour that passion into cycling. The region has produced some of cycling’s biggest stars, and its fans rank among cycling’s most passionate. I wish I was there instead of waiting for a vaccine. #grrrrrr
We’re already seeing some incredible racing in the first rematch between Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar since last year’s Tour. Roglič came roaring out of the gate with a TT victory Monday, but Pogačar got his revenge in Wednesday’s wild climbing stage.
I love watching these two fearless and daring riders race. It seems neither know the meaning of caution. It’s full-gas every time they strap in, and even more so when they’re facing off against each other.
Also read: Are “RoPo” in danger of peaking too soon?
As exciting as Pogačar’s Tour victory was last summer, I was secretly hoping that Roglič would have won the yellow jersey. The former ski jumper — sorry, couldn’t resist! — rode a near-flawless race, and it was heartbreaking to watch him lose as it was exhilarating to see Pogačar win. That’s the magic of cycling.
No one “deserves” victory — the victor is decided by the road and the legs — but for me, Roglič has been one the most impressive riders during the past two or three years. In fact, had he won the Tour, we’d be calling it the dawning of the Roglič era.
It always seems odd to me that Roglič’s ski-jumping background has become some sort of social media punch line. Yes, it’s been repeated ad nauseam, but that should not overshadow his incredible backstory. I’ve been lucky enough to cover several Winter Olympic Games, and in Salt Lake City in 2002, I was part of a media tour that went to the top of one of the Nordic ski jumps. Anyone who voluntarily hucks themselves off one of those monsters is a hero in my book.
And that Roglič only began competitive racing in his early 20s, and that he’s twice won the Vuelta a España along with just about every other stage race save the Tour and the Giro is simply mind-blowing.
UCI and Flanders Classics: Credit where credit is due
The UCI catches a lot of flack, and sometimes deservedly so. Just look at this week’s misfire of its wacky water-bottle rules.
Yet credit is due for how the cycling governing body is navigating the coronavirus pandemic during the past year or so. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, and many of the larger decisions are beyond its control, but the UCI is steering the sport through one of the choppiest chapters of the sport’s long history.
Last spring, David Lappartient helped corral all the sport’s disparate interests, mandated that the medical staff create a mitigation plan for health and safety measures, and got everyone moving in one direction. The fact that most of the major races were contested in 2020, and seeing how things are going fairly well so far in 2021, gives hope that the worst of the COVID clouds could be behind the peloton. Losing Paris-Roubaix this weekend is a blow, but seeing it slotted into the weekend immediately following the “Flanders” worlds in Leuven is a stroke of genius.
Credit is also due to Flanders Classics, which is embarking on a multi-year project to bring parity between men and women across all of its race properties. On Wednesday, the first women’s Scheldeprijs was contested, meaning all six of its spring classics now have men’s and women’s races. More measures are in the works, including more prize money and enhanced TV coverage. The long-term play is to nurture the women’s scene so it’s a stand-alone (and profit-making) series.
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