Reflections ahead of Ronde van Vlaanderen
Updated: Apr 2, 2021
As the riders approached the final kilometre and Nathan Van Hooydonck led the group of seven, things looked rosy for Jumbo-Visma, who had arguably the most versatile cyclist in the world sitting but a few places back from Van Hooydonck. Producing a kilometre long lead-out for Stefan Küng and the sprinters- we're filing a trademark if you ever want to start a band, Stefan- Hooydonck peeled off with 320 metres to go, drawing Küng into action. Sitting on the wheel of Michael Matthews, the assassin of Jumbo-Visma bided his time until 250m from the line, at which point he kicked out of the saddle and launched an arrow-straight sprint to the line. A look over his right shoulder 25m from the line told him all he needed to know, no one was coming around him and all that was left was to raise his arms in celebration, and in doing so, delivering his first WorldTour victory in Belgium. As Van Hooydonck punched the air behind, Wout van Aert crossed the line and won Gent-Wevelgem at the fourth time of trying. In a few day's time, he will line up alongside Mathieu van der Poel and Julian Alaphilippe as favourites for the fabled Ronde van Vlaanderen.
With Paris-Roubaix postponed once more, it is Ronde van Vlaanderen that shall pick up the pieces again and take on even greater importance than before, should that even be possible. The entire spring Classics campaign will now revolve around Sunday's race and the past week or so has seen the riders testing their legs ahead of the all important day. Writing this with but a couple of days to go until cycling's super Sunday, we can reflect on the week that has gone and unpick lessons that can be learned ahead of the Ronde, starting with the team of one of the galácticos- namely Van der Poel, Van Aert and Alaphilippe.
Alpecin-Fenix have a lot of work to do
Despite the successes of Mathieu Van der Poel this season, his Alpecin-Fenix team have arguably failed to impress. It is true they have diversified over the past year and have other winners in the forms of Tim Merlier, Jasper Philipsen and others, but the team remains largely revolved around Van der Poel.
In order to have a team so in devotion of one man, it comes with trade-offs. Whilst Van der Poel has free reign to do as he sees fit at Alpecin-Fenix, this comes due to both the stature of the Dutchman and the stature of the team itself. Perhaps deceivingly so to some, given their constant invitations to races, Alpecin-Fenix are not in fact a WorldTeam (a team on the WorldTour). As a result, they are nowhere near the level of team of Deceuninck-Quick Step for example, something that has become obvious this season. Admittedly, Van der Poel has had his successes thus in 2021, but they are in spite of his team, rather than as a result of their work. With the combination of a weak team and poor positioning nous from Van der Poel, he is often in the wrong place when the all-important moments occur in races.
Mathieu van der Poel was triumphant on stage 3 at Tirreno-Adriatico, but will the weakness of his team prove his downfall on Sunday, where he will line up against fellow-favourite Wout van Aert. © Getty Images
In stage 3 of Tirreno-Adriatico, Van der Poel avenged the previous days' defeats to Wout van Aert and Julian Alaphilippe, displaying a ferocious show of power before sitting up nonchalantly- the man was a king. However, it was only the extraordinary powers of the Dutchman that allowed him into the position to sprint in the first place. In the final uphill kick leading towards the finishing straight, Van der Poel was positioned far down into the peloton, whilst his rivals were up front. With no teammates to move him up, Van der Poel appeared to float through the pack and onto the wheel of Van Aert in the space of a second. It was an almighty show of strength from the Cyclocross World Champion and clearly did not take the kick out of his legs. This is all well and good, but extraordinary shows of strength are not always possible, and all riders have a limited amount of matches to burn.
Whilst Van der Poel had diamonds in the legs at Tirreno-Adriatico, it was not such the case at Milan-Sanremo, with his positioning and lack of teammates once more on show. Coming into the Poggio climb, which almost always kicks off the decisive attacks for La Classicissima, Van der Poel was sat at the back of the leading group, dispensing water onto the disc brakes of Sam Bennett. Although people speculated that it was an indication of his confidence, his positioning did not improve on the climb and Van der Poel was not at the front when Wout van Aert followed Julian Alaphilippe's attack. The two riders broke clear and Van der Poel sensed trouble, causing him to expend the energy to move up in the pack and attempt to bridge the gap. The Dutchman powered his way up the Poggio and towards the leading duo, dragging everyone along with him. Because he had to come from behind, the other riders were able to latch onto his wheel and benefit from the tow at such high speeds. Were it not for Van der Poel's poor positioning, perhaps Van Aert, Alaphilippe and Van der Poel could have formed the race-winning attack, instead Van der Poel brought the two groups back together and the galácticos ultimately lost out to an astute Jasper Stuyven.
The Dutch champion's positioning has always been questionable throughout his road racing career, but more often than not he is able to use his power to correct a bad situation. However, such shows of power are not always possible and without teammates towards the fore, Van der Poel is constantly having to move up the pack on his own. Were his teammates to be stronger, perhaps they could move him up the pack and allow Van der Poel to sit in their wheels. Instead, Van der Poel has to burn yet another match, just to get into the position to attack or follow the wheels. Sometimes he is able to find success regardless, such as at Tirreno-Adriatico, but this will not always be the case.
Van der Poel and Wout van Aert performed the majority of the work in the chasing group at E3 Saxo Bank Classic, is this the way to topple the favourites once again at Ronde van Vlaanderen? © Getty Images Sport
There are further questions marks remaining over the tactical nous of the riders within Alpecin-Fenix, following a couple of questionable performances this past week. On the receiving end of a Deceuninck-Quick Step masterclass at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic, Van der Poel and teammate Gianni Vermeersch were in the chasing group behind Kasper Asgreen. Whilst Quick Step are clearly a formidable team and employ cunning manoeuvres, Adam Blythe has rightly called out the peloton for naively allowing them to get away with things. Asgreen was clearly a dangerous threat, on both occasions when he attacked, but Van der Poel worked on the front alongside his long-time rival, Wout van Aert. Meanwhile, Vermeersch sat on the wheels and ultimately the two riders finished inside the top-10, whilst Kasper Asgreen would win the race. There were many points throughout the final 50km when Van der Poel would work on the front and not request the help of AG2r Citroën, despite the French outfit having two riders in the chasing group. It was a tiring performance from Van der Poel and alongside the baffling decision not to request the help of Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen, it also exposed Alpecin-Fenix as taking the wrong decision once again. Instead of having Van der Poel expose himself on the front of the group, it would have been far wiser for his teammate Vermeersch to produce turns on the front- until he was dropped on the Paterberg that is. The argument may go that he was in no fit state to do such a thing, but he ultimately finished inside the top-10 and less than a minute back on Van der Poel. The wise choice would have been to sacrifice Vermeersch and buried the Alpecin-Fenix rider on the front, in an attempt to bring back Asgreen. But it was not the choice taken by Alpecin-Fenix and they paid the price, allowing the Danish champion to solo to victory in Harelbeke.
Alpecin-Fenix will rightly enter Ronde van Vlaanderen with the expectation of winning the race once again with Mathieu Van der Poel, but they must improve in the future in order to maximise Van der Poel's potential. Without the help of his team, super Mathieu can not do it all on his own- not in every race at least.
Team BikeExchange produced their greatest display in the Classics for years
Whether it be Milan-Sanremo or the Ardennes Classics, Michael Matthews is often tipped for a high placing, but not as much is expected of his team in general. Heading into Sunday's Gent-Wevelgem, few would have anticipated that Team BikeExchange would finish the day as most impressive team, but finish the day as such they did. Matthews could not finish off the job in Wevelgem, but the teamwork to deliver him to the line was truly impressive.
Tom Boonen kept a close eye on Matthew Hayman in the Roubaix velodrome, but it was not to be for the Belgian. © Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com
In 2016, Tom Boonen was denied a record fifth Paris-Roubaix title, as he was pipped in the sprint by Matthew Hayman, who delivered a third Monument victory for the team then known as Orica-GreenEDGE. As the 2016 road season came to a conclusion, Esteban Chaves followed up with another Monument victory for the Australian outfit by winning the Giro di Lombardia ahead of Diego Rosa. When combined with Simon Gerrans' impressive victories at Milan-Sanremo (2012) and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (2014), the team now known as Team BikeExchange have won four out of the five Monuments, a notable achievement for a team more known for stage hunting in the Grand Tours. Since 2016 however, success in the Monuments has dried up for the Australian outfit, with Caleb Ewan's second place at the 2018 Milan-Sanremo being an obvious highlight. That being said, this result does not come without its issues, as Ewan blames the team's tactics for his runner-up spot. With Vincenzo Nibali up the road on a solo attack that would subsequently prove successful, Mitchelton-Scott had three men- including Matteo Trentin and Caleb Ewan- in the chasing group behind. Instead of working to bring the sprint back for his Australian teammate, Trentin would attack on his own in a futile attempt to bridge across to Nibali.
"In the end, I had two teammates and one decided to attack and went nowhere. I think with that extra help we could have brought him back. It was very typical Mitchelton that they didn't just back one rider- they had to have 10 different options."
Caleb Ewan spoke to Procycling about his disappointment at Milan-Sanremo in 2018
Team BikeExchange have never won Ronde van Vlaanderen and have only finished inside the top-10 on one occasion since their inception in 2012- with Sebastian Langeveld finishing 10th in 2013. Despite their success elsewhere during Classics season, Ronde van Vlaanderen has always alluded them, something which they will be eager to change this weekend.
Matt White and his team could not have wished for a better display of intent than their performance at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday, where Michael Matthews finished fifth after a tough day's racing. The day's main split occurred before TV coverage went live and with almost 200km still to ride, as the infamous Belgian echelons played havoc once more- it was a shame we could not witness the events unfolding! Inside the front group were a flurry of Team BikeExchange riders, all equally determined to position Matthews in the best possible position to win. Among their ranks were Jack Bauer, Luka Mezgec and Robert Stannard, with all three performing huge displays on the front in order to maintain the minute-plus lead over the chasing group. It was the best I have seen Team BikeExchange perform in the Classics for a good few years and allowed the front group to maintain the comfortable lead over a chasing group that included dangerous riders such as Arnaud Démare. Mezgec in particular was producing long pulls on the front of the pack at around 70km to go, before puncturing and succumbing to his fate, a DNF on the results sheet. The DNF will mask the terrific work that the Slovenian produced in the front group, for that, we take our time to applaud him now. Back towards the front and without the help of a stricken Mezgec, Team BikeExchange remained strong and Jack Bauer was rarely seen away from Matthews' side, with the Kiwi rider serving as a loyal lieutenant to his Southern Hemisphere brethren. On the Kemmelberg, Wout van Aert produced a blistering attack with over 40km still to race, establishing the race-winning break. Having done enormous work to position Matthews towards the front of the group, his Team BikeExchange domestiques would soon be distanced and not to be seen again on the day. However, their performance up until Van Aert's attack deserves a range of plaudits, allowing Matthews a brilliant opportunity at taking the win. Despite his ultimate failure, should the team produce a similar performance at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, they can be confident of delivering a first win and ticking off their final Monument.
Luke Durbridge opened a gap to the peloton during Dwars door Vlaanderen, in chase of Dylan van Baarle, but it was not to be for the Australian. © Getty Images Sport
Michael Matthews once more failed to cross the finish line first- more on that anon- but Team BikeExchange appear to have more than one potential Ronde winner amongst their midst. In Wednesday's Dwars door Vlaanderen, won by Dylan van Baarle, Team BikeExchange could be pleased with the performance of Luke Durbridge. The Australian has long been tipped for success in the Classics, but for one reason or another, he is yet to have delivered upon his potential. His best Classics performance to date came in a bygone Dwars door Vlaanderen in 2017, where he finished fourth amongst a trio of riders who came home 39 seconds down on lone winner, Yves Lampaert. In Wednesday's edition of Dwars door Vlaanderen, the Team BikeExchange rider was ever-present towards the front and produced a blistering attack with 43km to go. Unfortunately, his attack did not stick and the rider up front was successful in holding off the chasing pack. But, Durbridge had hinted at his good form and potential to achieve Classics success, something to bear in mind for Sunday. Perhaps Team BikeExchange have two potential winners amongst their midst; other teams will be forced to treat them with respect come Sunday.
Way too much is expected of Michael Matthews
Team BikeExchange will be delighted to see the upturn of form from Luke Durbridge, because I have seen nothing that tells me why Michael Matthews is so hotly tipped for every one-day race he partakes in. Indeed, I have yet to see why Matthews is so hotly tipped to win any bike race. This is not intended as a blatant attack on the Australian, who is a good rider and reliable to produce a top-1o result for the team. However, it must be acknowledged that we have not seen the best of Matthews in a very long time and we should not expect so much of him going into every race.
Michael Matthews hit his peak at the 2017 Tour de France, can he return to his former glories? © Getty Images
Last year's Tour de France was notable for many reasons, with one being the success of Sam Bennett in dislodging Peter Sagan from the green jersey. It was arguably almost a decade in the making and was the first time that Sagan has been beaten mano a mano in the points classification since winning his first in 2012. It was not, however, the first time that Sagan has failed to take home the green jersey from the Tour de France, with Michael Matthews winning the competition in 2017. Matthews was the beneficiary of Sagan's disqualification from the Tour as a result of his involvement in the crash that would bring down Mark Cavendish. It was a career defining moment for Matthews and his consistency over three weeks at the Grand Boucle would deliver him an achievement that many riders aim for, but few achieve. He was a jersey winner at the Tour de France.
However, since his Tour success in 2017, where he managed to take two stage victories, Matthews has failed to reach the same heights and his career has somewhat plateaued. In some ways, Matthews' career was on an upward curve until 2017, at which point he peaked and has subsequently declined. This is backed up by his position in the Procyclingstats ranking, shown on the graph below.
Since victory on stage 16 of the 2017 Tour de France, Matthews has failed to win a Grand Tour stage again and has only achieved results in smaller stage races or one-day events. Matthews was amongst a whole host of riders who failed to take a win in the condensed 2020 race season, resulting in his departure from Team Sunweb, with whom he did not appear to have the most enjoyable working relationship. The Australian achieved four victories in 2018, with two of those coming in the season-ending Canadian WorldTour races. Joining his victories in Canada, Matthews won a time trial in the Tour de Romandie and a stage of the BinckBank Tour. As already stated, Matthews was reliable for solid, but unspectacular, top-10 finishes, achieving such in Milan-Sanremo and La Flèche Wallonne.
Aside from another top-1o at La Flèche Wallonne and another win in the season-ending Canadian races, 2019 proved another average season for Matthews, with two wins at Volta a Catalunya serving as a highlight. The Team Sunweb rider achieved a remarkable nine top-10 finishes at the Tour de France, but was unsuccessful in converting top-10 finishes into a victory- the story of Matthews' career in some ways. Despite becoming an incredibly reliable rider, Matthews is often incapable of delivering victories and this is overwhelmingly the case on the grandest stage. The consistency is remarkable and must be applauded- this is not to take away from this brilliance- but let us not get carried away. Matthews is more often than not tipped as a big favourite for races such as Milan-Sanremo, and yet nothing suggests that a big one-day victory will come soon for the Team BikeExchange rider. Whilst we have given the team their fair share of plaudits for their recent performances, we must be wary of making bold claims about their odds for this Sunday. Should the real favourites perform to the best of their abilities, neither Durbridge nor Matthews will be likely to cause an upset.
Question marks remain over Greg Van Avermaet
AG2R Citroën were in some ways the story of the off-season, in more ways than one. Firstly, their new kit turned many heads and served as a source of ridicule and acclaim, in equal measure. In GCN's 'hot or not' question posed to their audience, half of respondents voted for hot... and half of them voted for not. The cycling world was split, was it genius or was it an abomination? Whichever side of the fence you fell on, one thing was sure- AG2R Citroën would be a Classics side to fear. Over the winter they bolstered their ranks with the signings of Bob Jungels, Michael Schär and the Belgian icon- Greg Van Avermaet. Joining the likes of Oliver Naesen at the French team, it looked as if they had become the main rival to Deceuninck-Quick Step when it came to the Classics. However, the presumed success has yet to come and particularly worrying is the future of Van Avermaet, who will be desperate to get a first win on the board for his new team.
At the height of his powers, Greg Van Avermaet won the 2017 Paris-Roubaix despite suffering an ill-timed puncture. © Getty Images Sport
For many years, Van Avermaet has entered Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix as one of the main favourites. The same thing cannot necessarily be said this year and for a very good reason. It has been 564 days since Van Avermaet's last win, coming at the 2019 GP Cycliste de Montréal. His last win in Belgium came at the 2017 Gent-Wevelgem, a week ahead of a second place finish at Ronde van Vlaanderen and two weeks ahead of winning Paris-Roubaix. This was Greg Van Avermaet at the height of his powers, sweeping up wins at E3 Harelbeke and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in the same spring.
2018 brought top-5 placings at both Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, something he has been unable to replicate since. Whilst he was taken out of last year's Ronde due to injury, the form of both he and his team has been worrying in the past week or so. On Sunday at Gent-Wevelgem, AG2R Citroën missed out on the split in the echelons, resulting in their star riders being caught in the second group on the road, which sat consistently over a minute down on the front of the race. For riders of the ilk of Oliver Naesen and Van Avermaet, it was an unexpected mishap to say the least. Of further surprise was the apparent weakness of Van Avermaet on the final ascent of the Kemmelberg, where he visibly struggled to maintain the wheels of numerous riders ahead of him. Granted, the race had gone up the road, but it was a moment of fragility from the Belgian, something that is in the spotlight in the final week before Ronde van Vlaanderen.
AG2R Citroën were very much unhelpful members of the chasing group at E3 Saxo Bank Classic. © Getty Images Sport
The poor performance of AG2R Citroën in Gent-Wevelgem was particularly notable coming off the back of the E3 Saxo Bank Classic, where Naesen and Van Avermaet did manage to make the front group. Joining the pair in the front group were Mathieu van der Poel and Gianni Vermeersch from Alpecin-Fenix, alongside a whole host of Deceuninck-Quick Step brethren. Perhaps it was a case of bad legs from both riders, but neither of Naesen or Van Avermaet committed to the chase of Kasper Asgreen following his race-winning attack. When Van Avermaet joined Naesen at the French team, much was expected of their partnership in the Classics, and yet they sat within the chasing group like a pair of wet lemons at E3. Mathieu van der Poel was forced to do the majority of the futile chasing, allowing the Deceuninck-Quick Step riders to sit on and watch their teammate sail up the road to victory. One would have expected the Belgian pair to have worked together to attempt to bring Asgreen back, or even have one of the pair sacrificing themselves in order to work for the man with fresher legs. Instead, Naesen and Van Avermaet participated in short turns on the front and opted to remain largely anonymous as the Danish rider soloed away to the biggest win of his career.
Admittedly, AG2R Citroën would rightly point to Van Avermaet's performance at Dwars door Vlaanderen for evidence that the great Belgian is not a fading force. Van Avermaet was impressive in Wednesday's final warm-up race before Ronde van Vlaanderen, sitting at the front of the race as the leading group went over the Taaienberg 58km from home. Despite Van Baarle dispatching the front group for the final 53km, Van Avermaet remained active behind and attacked at numerous points on the run to home: with 50km left, with 41km left and finally with a big attack 35km from the line. Although none of the accelerations were successful in bringing Van Baarle back to the Belgian, they showed positive signs ahead of Sunday. Non-existent at E3 Saxo Bank Classic, anonymous at the front group at Gent-Wevelgem, attacking at Dwars door Vlaanderen- some may say that Van Avermaet is tailoring his form nicely for a serious crack at Ronde van Vlaanderen this Sunday. Should that be the case, I would be as delighted as all fans to see the AG2R Citroën rider mount the top step of a podium once more, but we must admit that until Van Avermaet wins a race once again, question marks linger over his transfer to AG2R Citroën.
Anthony Turgis is the most underrated Classics rider in the peloton
For hardcore fans of the sport, the name of Anthony Turgis is probably high in the expectations going into Sunday, but ask casual observers and few would even be able to identify which team he rode for. Outside of the trio of Van Aert, Van der Poel and Alaphilippe, Anthony Turgis could arguably be amongst the next batch of favourites. He once more showed his face at Gent-Wevelgem, attacking from the second group with 18.5km to go. His deep effort proved futile, but it showed guts, determination and a confidence in his legs, everything he will need on Sunday.
Anthony Turgis slots in behind Nils Politt at Dwars door Vlaanderen. © Getty Images Sport
In seven one-day races this season, Turgis has not finished outside of the top-15, an impressive feat of consistency. His best result came in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, where he placed second behind winner Mads Pedersen. However, his most impressive ride was at Milan-Sanremo, where he placed 10th in an elite group. Alongside top-10s at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Milan-Sanremo and Gent-Wevelgem, Turgis has an impressive list of results thus far this season: 12th at GP la Marseillaise, 15th at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, 12th at E3 Saxo Bank Classic and 8th at Dwars door Vlaanderen. If, like me, you are a speculative player of Velogames, or indeed if you fancy the occasional flutter... get your ducks in a row and gamble on Anthony Turgis- one of these days, he is going to come through with an enormous result, why not this Sunday?
Deceuninck-Quick Step can upset the (Van...) applecart on Sunday
"How can you beat these guys?", was the question asked about Mathieu Van der Poel and Wout van Aert just a couple of weeks ago. Now, that is a direct quote from Adam Blythe after the E3 Saxo Bank Classic. Instead of referring to the two Vans, it now referred to the almighty Deceuninck-Quick Step team, following a dominant display at E3 that will be talked about for years. In a masterful performance, Quick Step unveiled a textbook in how to beat the two favourites for Sunday's Ronde van Vlaanderen. Should they produce a similar performance this weekend, they will be a very hard team to stop. Before we speculate towards this weekend, let us first acknowledge, and pay homage to, their display at E3 last Friday...
How the race unfolded for Deceuninck-Quick Step
67km to go: Following a puncture for Wout van Aert, Jumbo Visma are pulling on the front of the chasing group in order to bridge across to the front of the race. They are 16 seconds behind the group containing the day's favourites and in response to a diminishing gap, Florian Sénéchal ups the pace in the front group. The strong tempo from Sénéchal sets up an attack from his Quick Step teammate, Zdeněk Štybar. Štybar attacks on the Boigneberg climb (1000m at 5.2%), softening up the group and leading to a subsequent attack from another fellow teammate, Kasper Asgreen. Following the attack of Asgreen at 66km to go, Štybar sits on the front of the first group, slowing down the pace and allowing the Danish champion to open up a gap at the front of the race.
65.3km: Wout van Aert bridges across to group 1, who are in deficit to the lone attacker, Kasper Asgreen. In immediate response to the arrival of Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel mounts an attack, followed closely by Štybar and a Quick Step teammate. Due to the presence of two Quick Step riders, Van der Poel refuses to drag them across to Asgreen and is forced to sit up. Van der Poel's predicament is confirmed when Jelle Wallays attacks and the Dutchman sits up in order to wait for the group containing Wout van Aert. Van der Poel knew that it would be futile to drag Quick Step riders towards their teammate, Kasper Asgreen. By the foot of the Eikenberg (1250m at 6.2%), Asgreen has a 16 second gap and his Quick Step teammates behind jump on attacks by Marco Haller and Stefan Küng.
'The motorbike' engages the ignition. © Getty Images Sport
59.3km: Stefan Küng attacks once more and is immediately followed by Sénéchal.
58.8km: Greg Van Avermaet attacks with Victor Campenaerts in his wheel, but the pair are tracked by Yves Lampaert, yet another Deceuninck-Quicl Step rider.
57km: Mathieu Van der Poel attacks on the Stationsberg (700m at 3.2%) and is followed by Wout van Aert, Štybar and Lampaert. Lampaert is briefly distanced and Štybar, Van Aert and Van der Poel are alone on the Stationsberg. The cobbled sector is very technical, with plenty of up and downs, allowing the Cyclocross World Champions to display their bike handling capabilities.
55km: The chasing group comes together once more, but is reduced in numbers. The gap to Kasper Asgreen is only 11 seconds.
54.3km: Anthony Turgis attacks and is followed by Sénéchal. The pair are soon joined in a select front group by Oliver Naesen, but neither Van der Poel nor Van Aert.
54km: Stefan Küng accelerates and Lampaert follows. Group 2 on the road is consolidated and sit 40 seconds behind Kasper Asgreen. The first group, including Naesen and Sénéchal, is 25 seconds down on the front of the race.
48.1km: The gap from Asgreen to the peloton (group 2) is now over a minute, with the Dane holding a healthy 38 second gap to group 1.
41km: Wout van Aert attacks from the peloton on the Paterberg (400m at 12.9%) and is shortly followed by Štybar, Greg Van Avermaet and Van der Poel. At the same time, Sénéchal remains in the first group, being given a tow, 23 seconds behind his teammate up the road. Equally reluctant to work in a group, Štybar refuses to come through ahead of Van der Poel and with Van Avermaet struggling, Van Aert and Van der Poel are forced to work in unison to attempt to reach the first group.
38.1km: On the 15th hill of the day, Oude Kwaremont (2.2km at 4%), the Van der Poel group bridges across to group 1, with the expanded group sitting 21 seconds in arrears of Kasper Asgreen.
36.1km: Yves Lampaert works together with Dylan van Baarle and the pair try to bridge across to group 1.
31km: On the Karnemelkbeekstraat (1530m at 4.9%), Wout van Aert presses the tempo, reducing the gap to Asgreen to only 7 seconds.
26.4km: Wout van Aert's work was not enough to reach Asgreen, with the chasing group sitting 15 seconds down. Yves Lampaert and Dylan Van Baarle join the chasing group and it is only now that Oliver Naesen pulls a turn on the front. The work from Naesen baffles Adam Blythe, with the Belgian having allowed another Quick Step rider to join the ranks.
One for the road eh, Kasper... © Getty Images Sport
22.2km: Gap to Asgreen reaches 39 seconds, with the riders in the chasing group refusing to work, insistent that Van der Poel and Van Aert are the main favourites. The trio of Quick Step riders- Sénéchal, Štybar and Lampaert- are sat on the front of the group, exemplifying how slow the pace is.
21km: Yves Lampaert punctures and is taken out of the finale.
19.7km: Wout Van Aert attacks on the Tiegemberg (750m at 5.6%), followed closely by Mathieu Van der Poel and Zdeněk Štybar.
19.6km: Wout van Aert peels off and blows up, allowing Mathieu van der Poel to mount an attack. Following the Dutch champion are Štybar, Sénéchal, Van Avermaet and Naesen. Within the short space of the Tiegemberg climb, the gap to Asgreen has reduced from 30 seconds to just 11. Dylan van Baarle latches onto the select group of chasers and the finale is set.
12.3km: Kasper Asgreen is caught by the chasers, who hold a 14 second gap to Van Aert's group. This group will not make an impact on the remainder of the race and as Asgreen is caught, his teammate Florian Sénéchal gives him a well earned pat on the back. Asgreen's day is seemingly over, with the Dane slotting in at the back of the front group.
4.9km: As the front group passes a Lidl- how very appropriate for Deceuninck-Quick Step- Asgreen spots the group passing a traffic island on the left-hand side. In response, Asgreen attacks on the right-hand side and due to coming from the very back of the leading group, he catches the others riders unaware. In response to his attack, Van der Poel flicks his elbow to request a rider coming through to mount the chase. However, he is met by the deadpan face of Štybar, who understandably refuses to chase down his teammate.
April 1st brings an end to the use of 'puppy paws', but Kasper Asgreen exemplified that riders will always find innovative ways of circumventing UCI rules! © Getty Images Sport
4.4km: Greg Van Avermaet attempts to mount a chase, but his attack goes nowhere and Sénéchal comes through to second wheel in order to disrupt the rhythm of the chasing group.
4.1km: Oliver Naesen attacks but is equally followed by a Quick Step rider, this time being Štybar. The pair are soon caught, with Mathieu Van der Poel dragging back Sénéchal and the others.
3.3km: Greg Van Avermaet attacks once again, but once more he is tracked by Sénéchal. The Olympic champion returns to his saddle and admits defeat.
3km: Dylan van Baarle attacks and is tracked by Štybar. The chasing group remains as a single, incoherent entity.
2.1km: Van der Poel unleashes a large attack, but is followed by both Štybar and Sénéchal like a pack of dogs- or as a Wolfpack, some may say... It is clear that Van der Poel cannot afford to drag the pair to the finish, where he would be faced with a 3 vs 1 scenario against Deceuninck-Quick Step. In response to this latest attack thwarted by Quick Step, Adam Blythe declares, "the race is now for second place!" The gap to Asgreen is 16 seconds.
0km: Kasper Asgreen solos to victory at E3, finishing 32 seconds ahead of the chasing group. A perfect day for Deceuninck-Quick Step is capped off by Florian Sénéchal winning the sprint behind to finish second.
He finished second at the 2019 Ronde van Vlaanderen, can he go one better on Sunday? © Getty Images Sport
A clear pattern should have emerged, if you were committed enough to read our race transcript! Deceuninck-Quick Step played the numbers game on Wout van Aert and Mathieu Van der Poel, isolating the main protagonists and forcing them into unfavourable territory. By sending a man up the road, the riders behind had an excuse not to do any work. Further, this was not any ordinary rider, this was Kasper Asgreen, the man likened to a motorbike by his Sports Director, Brian Holm. Chugging away off the front, Asgreen was ever-determined, insistent that the gap would not close, no matter how small it got. Time upon time, the gap to Asgreen was brought within 15 seconds, even coming to as little as 8 seconds, and yet the Danish champion would not surrender.
Behind the lone break of Asgreen, Deceuninck-Quick Step could giggle like hyenas, constantly pouncing on their prey as the likes of Van der Poel and Küng would attempt to mount an attack. "Not today", said the Wolfpack, as they latched onto the back of any move, succumbing their attacks to a broken fate. One after another the Quick Step riders would strike, breaking down the morale of the chasers. Were the attackers to continue riding with a Quick Step rider in their wheel, their fate would be sealed- giving a rival a free ride towards the front of the race, whereupon he would join forces with his teammate up the road. It was a masterful display of playing the numbers game, as Štybar, Lampaert and Sénéchal took it in turns to hunt down a move, latching onto the backs of the riders like marine leaches to a shark. It was cruel, it was torturous, it was terrific. The Wolfpack hunted in their numbers and forced Van Aert and Van der Poel to shoulder the burden of chasing their brethren up the road. It was merciless.
Florian Sénéchal caps off a perfect day for Deceuninck-Quick Step with a second place finish. He finished second in the sprint behind Giacomo Nizzolo at the Clasica de Almeria earlier in the season, and is one to watch should he make the finale at the Ronde van Vlaanderen. © Getty Images Sport
Upon catching Asgreen with 12.3km to go, the chasing group was wounded, with legs battered after a tireless effort to bring the Dane back amongst the pack. In contrast, the Quick Step riders had experienced a relatively easy ride to towards Harelbeke, aided by sitting in the wheels with no reason to work. However, it was not to be the fresh riders whom would attack, instead it would be our brave Dane, with Asgreen sniffing blood. Reminiscent of the great Fabian Cancellara, Asgreen attacked from the back of the group and on the opposite side of a traffic island, allowing no rider to attach to his wheel. With a flash the Dane had gone... the gap would never be closed. Time after time, the chasers would produce an attack, but once more they would be dragged down to their deaths by an all-too-willing Quick Step rider. It would be futile for the attackers to drag a Quick Step rider along with them, after all, they would simply roll them on the line after a final 60km of refusing to work on the front.
"Numbers, numbers, numbers, it's exactly what Patrick Lefevere was talking about when he was asked, 'how do you beat Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert'? Isolate them, put them out of contention, and that's what's happened here. Deceuninck-Quick Step, with those seven men at the bottom of the Taaienberg, showing their intentions. It's been pulled off perfectly and now with a kilometre and a half still to go, this is Kasper Asgreen's race to lose- and it's a procession to the finish line!"
Rob Hatch producing excellent commentary, as ever, to wax lyrical about the masterful tactics of Deceuninck-Quick Step.
Last Friday was to be a day of rejoice for Deceuninck-Quick Step, and this was cemented with Florian Sénéchal sprinting to second place behind his teammate. Sénéchal's legs had been saved and he was able to round Mathieu van der Poel before the line, it was tactical perfection. Watch out for Yves Lampaert on Sunday. Watch out for Florian Sénéchal on Sunday. Watch out for Kasper Asgreen on Sunday. This is Deceuninck-Quick Step, and they've worked out how to beat the pair of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert.
Oh, and they have Julian Alaphilippe riding on Sunday too... good luck Wout and Mathieu.
Casquettes and Bidons' ones to watch!
🧢🧢🧢🧢🧢 Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert
🧢🧢🧢🧢 Julian Alaphilippe
🧢🧢🧢 Kasper Asgreen, Dylan van Baarle, Florian Sénéchal
🧢🧢 Yves Lampaert, Matteo Trentin, Anthony Turgis, Greg Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan
🧢 Oliver Naesen, Sep Vanmarcke, Jasper Stuyven