My Top Five Riders From the Men’s Spring Classics
As Tadej Pogačar crossed the line with his arms aloft in Liège last weekend, the curtain fell on what had been an enthralling period of racing. The spring Classics and other races that have made up the start of the current season have been packed full of drama and individual success stories, which we have all enjoyed.
The spring has certainly rushed by, particularly with the second consecutive rescheduling of Paris-Roubaix. However, as we journey out of lockdown and associated restrictions, the racing on show provided a much needed distraction for us all. The vast majority of us were expecting total and utter domination from messrs Van der Poel and Van Aert, but instead we saw a wide ranging selection of winners in the men’s peloton. The riders who we expected to flourish shared the spoils amongst themselves, with no rider taking home more than two one-day victories. Amongst them we saw the likes of Kasper Asgreen coming to the fore and proving his mettle at races like the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and Dylan van Baarle taking a great win too. Despite showing that, once again, he is the king of the Mur de Huy at Flèche Wallone, we also saw that the weight of the rainbow jersey perhaps slightly impacted on Julian Alaphilippe. Alongside those who won, I felt it important to remember and acknowledge those that really made the Classics what they were, racing with their hearts from the start and really making it beguiling to watch. Therefore, inspired by others, here are my top five riders in the men’s peloton this spring.
Wout van Aert
Wout van Aert winning stage one of Tirreno-Adriatico 2021. © Tim de Waele/Getty Images
When you consider his career to date, you could make a solid argument that Wout van Aert is uncontested as the best all round male professional cyclist in the world at the moment. The Belgian can challenge on Grand Tour sprint stages, can comfortably climb alongside some of the best GC riders in the business and time-trial. That’s without mentioning the obvious, that Van Aert is an unbelievable one day-racer.
He took two big wins this spring, sealing Gent-Wevelgem in a sprint-finish and then the Amstel Gold race. Prior to the two, he even managed to challenge for the overall win at Tirreno-Adriatico. Van Aert will ride the Tour de France again this year in support of Primož Roglič, but the autumn could be where he shines once more. Van Aert is my favourite for the win at the rearranged Paris-Roubaix and could well take the rainbow jersey off Julian Alaphilippe’s shoulders at the World Championships in Belgium.
Asgreen was very much the underdog against Mathieu van der Poel, but came out on top at the Ronde van Vlaanderen. © Getty Images Sport
As the Ronde van Vlaanderen approached, we all expected to be talking about the action between the three musketeers- Van der Poel, Van Aert and Alaphilippe- as they battled for the win. Kasper Asgreen totally ripped up the pre-written script, and really showed just how strong and powerful he is over such a gruelling course. When many of the other pre-race favourites were left behind, the Danish motorbike was able to match Van der Poel on the Oude Kwaremont. Asgreen was then able to ride alongside Van der Poel up the Paterberg, before heading towards the finish side by side with the Dutch champion.
It takes some serious nerve to be happy to take Van der Poel to the last kilometre of a race and then fancy your chances in a sprint against him. However, Asgreen had the confidence to do just that and he then beat the Dutchman in style to win his first ever Monument.
This came hot on the heels of winning the E3 Saxo Bank Classic in a stunning tactical display from his team, Deceuninck-Quick Step. His entire team successfully isolated the two pre-race favourites, Van der Poel and Van Aert, by concurrently attacking on the Taaienberg climb. Asgreen then went on a solo attack for 40 km, before being reeled back in. Just when you thought the Danish Champion should be completely spent, he then put in yet another attack from behind a traffic island speeding away from the group to take the win. Many cycling fans expected to be talking about his teammate, Julian Alaphilippe, as the best Quick Step rider of the spring; however, with two huge wins to his name, Asgreen stole the show and proved his mettle.
Mathieu van der Poel
Mathieu van der Poel stays clear of Julian Alaphilippe and Egan Bernal on a brutal late climb in Siena. © Getty Images Sport
Mathieu van der Poel makes this selection purely for the stunning nature of his win at Strade Bianche. The sheer brutality of Van der Poel’s attack out on the open road which forced the initial selection was utterly terrifying to watch. As if that wasn’t enough, his violent late attack on the climb into Siena was other-worldly and cemented his win as one of the most memorable at a one-day race in recent years.
However, other than winning Strade Bianche and his stage win at Tirreno-Adriatico, Van der Poel seemed to be running on empty this spring, not keeping to the same high standard we’ve come to expect from him. Granted, even the best riders in the world are entitled to an underwhelming performance now and again, but Van der Poel failed to deliver at several keys races in the spring period.
Perhaps this is where age and the experience that brings comes into play. In comparison, Alejandro Valverde rode consistently well and managed to take a podium finish at Flèche Wallon,e as well as a win at the one-day GP Miguel Indurain.
Mathieu van der Poel will be back though, and no doubt with all cylinders blazing in the races to come.
Former World Champion Valverde was in impressive form this spring, making the podium at Flèche Wallone and winning the GP Miguel Indurain. © Getty Images
Despite not taking a major win at a Monument or other big one-day races like Strade Bianche, Alejandro Valverde more than deserves a mention in this selection.
The fact that the former World Champion is still racing at the highest level possible is remarkable, especially as he turned 41 on the day he was in the winning breakaway at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, very nearly making the podium. For most people at that age, simply getting out of bed every morning without any aches or pains is an achievement in itself, but Valverde took 3rd place at La Flèche Wallonne before his heroics on the road to Liège, and early in April took victory at the GP Miguel Indurain race in Spain.
Valverde has hinted that he intends to call time on his career at the end of the current season. Before then, he is expected to compete at the Olympics in Tokyo. What a final hurrah it will be if he finishes his career with Olympic Gold in the men’s road race.
Anthony Turgis raised his value throughout the spring, and will be highly in demand from some of the biggest teams this winter. © Team Total Direct Energie
The inclusion of Turgis here was very much inspired by a debate I had on Twitter recently. Cyclist magazine included Turgis as a 'hipster' selection in their Classics’ top ten and I initially disagreed. However, after watching highlights and giving it a bit more thought, I have been convinced to change my mind.
Anthony Turgis may well have taken zero victories this spring, but he increased his value more than any other rider on some of the biggest stages. He was a constant thorn in the side of the favourites at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, regularly chasing down attacks and attempts to form a breakaway and throwing his own punches too. Turgis had shown that same form at the earlier cobbled Classics and continued to impress afterwards. It will be interesting to see if he repeats the same heroics later on in the season.
Despite currently riding for a second tier team, Total Direct Energie, over the last eight weeks Turgis proved he can more than hold his own alongside some of the best riders in the world. Furthermore, he showed signs he is certainly capable of advancing on this to potentially take some huge wins next season. It won’t be surprising to see him make the jump up to the WorldTour sometime in the not too distant future.