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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Poole

What We Learned from Opening Weekend

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

From sand and sports-washing, to cobbles and tradition, Opening Weekend diverged attention from the UAE Tour and towards the gorgeous Spring Classics, bringing us new winners of each race.

First up was Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which gave us a glimpse of the cobbled climbs to come in the Tour of Flanders. The Muur Van Geraardsbergen was removed from last year's Ronde van Vlaanderen due to the shortened nature of the course, but will be welcomed back with open arms in a few weeks time. It was on the Muur that Gianni Moscon opened a slight gap that held for 5 minutes, before being brought back in time for the uncharacteristic bunch sprint. As expected in such a scenario, the on-form Davide Ballerini took a comfortable victory ahead of Jake Stewart and Sep Vanmarcke.

Ballerini would not have the chance at becoming Italy's first ever winner of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, with the Deceuninck-Quick Step rider travelling to his home country for a spell of racing this week. In his place, another dogged sprinter reigned supreme as the former World Champion Mads Pedersen sealed the deal in Kuurne.

Both races provided excellent action for the so-called Opening Weekend of the season (sorry UAE Tour...) and also gave us a great glimpse into the form of the big stars, as well as the riders to watch over the next couple of months. Without further ado, let us dive into what we have learned from Opening Weekend!

Romain Bardet is on the long road back to challenging in the Grand Tours.

In a recent Friends of The Cycling Podcast special, Iwan Spekenbrink (Team DSM General Manager) outlined his plan for Romain Bardet this season, with an emphasis firmly being on the basics of bike riding, in order to make the Frenchman a more well rounded rider. "We first need to broaden his strength in that basic again... and once we get that in place, then we are going to build more specialised again", Spekenbrink states.

This game plan was seen on Saturday, as Bardet competed in his first Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and was visible on the front of the peloton with 71km to go. The idea is to place Bardet into the one-days and challenge him as a rider, forcing him to work on techniques such as positioning and resilience to the toughened nature of the courses, Only then will Bardet become more 'specialised', as Spekenbrink puts it. It certainly won't do him any harm and the legions of French fans will be delighted if they see him challenging for victories once more, whether that be in Ronde van Vlaanderen or the Tour de France.

Tim Declerq never ceases to amaze.

Not much to say here, El Tractor put in an enormous ride at Omloop and one that could be disguised by his DNF result. Until 75km to go as the race fractured, it appeared as though Declerq had been pulling on the front of the peloton for the majority of the day, ensuring the time gap to the breakaway never got out of control. Of course, this is the work domestiques do in most races and often go (unfortunately) unheralded. But, in this case Declerq deserves special praise, given it appears as though his work had begun a long time before the television pictures began. He truly is a wonderful asset to not only Deceuninck-Quick Step, but perhaps the peloton as a whole!

Sep Vanmarcke may have a new team, but it appears his misfortune is here to stay.

Admittedly the veteran Belgian finished on the podium of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but this came alongside more war scares to add to the collection. In what has by now become a regular feature of the Spring Classics, Vanmarcke crashed 75km out, scratching up his elbow and self-admittedly resulting in a faceplant for the new Israel Start-Up Nation signing.

The Brits are alright!

Opening Weekend brought a fantastic couple of results for British riders as Jake Stewart and Tom Pidcock (both first years in the WorldTour) took podium spots. Pidcock was the first to the party, impressing throughout Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and holding his own at his first Spring Classic. With 40km to go and with Julian Alaphilippe having forced a select group to form, Pidcock bridged a 20 second gap alongside Luxembourg Champion Kevin Geniets (an equally impressive ride from the Groupama-FDJ rider). It was an audacious effort from the Cyclocross star, due to the quality of riders up ahead- Van Avermaet, Trentin and Alaphilippe included- all of whom were determined to make the move stick. Pidcock astonished viewers at home and closed the gap with relative ease, before regularly being the man putting in digs to close a later gap to the World Champion. Whilst he and his Ineos Grenadiers teammates were left like a duck without water in the final, as their sprinter Ethan Hayter was beset by a crash, it had been an impressive day out for the young Brit and would only be the start to a great weekend.

Tom Pidcock mounts the chase of Julian Alaphilippe, unintimidated by being placed within such esteemed company. © Getty Images

Davide Ballerini eased to a comfortable victory at Omloop in the bunch sprint, but the man who came home second brought a raised eyebrow to many. At first it may have been hard to identify the Groupama-FDJ rider, with only Geniets being visible throughout the day- it was not him as the rider was wearing a trade team jersey rather than that of the Luxembourg Champion. Amid the melee after the finish, one man's name began to come to the mind.... was that, Jake Stewart? Indeed it was! After keeping his head down for much of the day, the Coventry-born rider found an opening and sprinted to a second place finish, the biggest result of his burgeoning career to date. It is not an anomalous result for Stewart, having started the season in incredible form, resulting in a 4th placed finish overall at Etoile de Bessèges and 10th in the final stage time trial. "Not sure where these legs have come from but I hope they stay" were Stewart's remarks on Twitter following the podium finish- we wouldn't be surprised if this was only the start of a breakthroughs season for the young Brit!

In similar fashion to Stewart, Pidcock was relatively under the radar throughout the day at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, before popping up in the sprint to deliver a second podium finish of the weekend for British riders. It wasn't a completely anomalous ride by the Yorkshireman, as he made his way into the second group on the road, with the likes of Arnaud Démare and what appeared to be the entirety of Qhubeka-ASSOS caught out in a split in the peloton, resulting in a lengthy chase for those in the third group on the road. With all the groups submerging with 1.7km to go, Pidcock retained a healthy position towards the front of the bunch and kicked into gear behind the eventual winner, Mads Pedersen. It was a fine way to cap off the weekend for the Brits, as the Ineos Grenadier youngster sprinted home to third place, narrowly being beaten into second by Anthony Turgis. Pidcock is scheduled to ride Strade Bianche next Saturday and with the form he has shown this weekend, will be amongst the outside favourites to take the race victory.

Julian Alaphilippe is on his way to becoming the most entertaining World Champion in decades.

As often correctly pointed out by Dan Lloyd on commentary, the World Champion has rarely had a quite race day since donning the rainbow bands after Imola last year. The list of races and performances is quite astonishing, for the good and the bad:

  • Liège-Bastogne-Liège - Alaphilippe lit up the final climb and forced an elite selection at the head of the race, including Marc Hirschi, Matej Mohorič, Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar. It was in the final sprint that swerve-gate/celebration-gate unfolded, as Alaphilippe altered his sprinting line and cut up Marc Hirschi, who looked on course to take his first Monument victory. This was just the beginning, with Alaphilippe outstretching his arms in celebration, only to be pipped at the line by Primož Roglič. The Frenchman was later relegated to fifth for an irregular sprint.

  • De Brabantse Pijl - The World Champion beat Mathieu van der Poel in a two-up sprint, an impressive feat in itself- whilst raising his arms aloft early once more, narrowly and most would say luckily, taking the victory over the Dutchman. It was almost lightning struck twice, but provided Alaphilippe with his first victory in the rainbow bands, in only his second race after winning the World Championship Road Race in Imola.

  • Ronde van Vlaanderen - The Frenchman broke clear with Van der Poel and Wout van Aert, only to come unstuck by crashing into the bike of a race motorbike, in one of the unluckiest moments of the 2020 season. It resulted in a fracture to the hand and was an unfortunate end to the year for the World Champion. One can only speculate as to how the finish of Alaphilippe's debut Ronde may have turned out, but he had beaten Van Der Poel, the eventual winner, in the sprint at De Brabantse Pijl...

  • Tour de la Provence - Stage 1, Alaphilippe attacks with 70km to go, only to have the three-man breakaway caught inside the final 2km, resulting in the World Champion helping in the lead-out for stage winner and teammate Davide Ballerini. Stage 2, Alaphilippe mysteriously bunnyhops an entire roundabout before crashing on the final bend, whilst in an ideal place to contest the finish. Stage 3, Alaphilippe battles tooth and nail with Egan Bernal up Mont Ventoux, before ultimately finishing third behind Bernal and stage winner, Iván Sosa. Stage 4, possibly Alaphilippe's only quiet day in the World Championship bands- that being said, he did pick up the bonus seconds in the intermediate sprint to jump up to second place overall, ahead of Bernal.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad followed a similar formula, with Alaphilippe lighting up the day and providing the race narrative that unfolded. In the wheel tracks of Matteo Trentin, it was the Frenchman that forced the pace on the Molenberg, resulting in an elite group breaking free from the peloton. Alaphilippe did a large share of the work on the front to ensure this move stuck, before attacking on the Berendries inside the final 50km. This move was blistering and resulted in a solo breakaway at the front of the race.

“Alaphilippe then turned the race upside down."
Sep Vanmarcke referring to the attack of the World Champion on the Molenberg.

The World Champion opened up a 20+ second gap over a group of committed chasers, regularly headed by the aforementioned Tom Pidcock, and at times looked as though he would make it to the line alone. Alas, it was not to be and Alaphilippe was caught inside the final 18km as the race approached the foot of the Muur van Geraardsbergen. Stupidly enough, we tweeted that 'Alaphilippe's day looks over', as the Frenchman slipped towards the back of the group on the Muur, clearly suffering from the effort put in throughout the course of the day. Of course, these words would soon become redundant, as Alaphilippe returned to the front of the group. Not only did he return to the front, but he proved invaluable to the chase of Gianni Moscon, who had broken clear on the Muur. With this sustained effort to bridge the gap to the Italian, Alaphilippe had laid the foundations for teammate Davide Ballerini's sprint victory. It was another day in the life of Julian Alaphilippe as World Champion, another day full of the Frenchman in the headlines- long may it continue!

Davide Ballerini and Julian Alaphilippe celebrate a job well done for Deceuninck-Quick Step. © Getty Images

Gianni Moscon has excellent form.

Take a glance at the results from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and you'd be forgiven for thinking that Gianni Moscon had a sub-par day, ending with a 45th placed finish and coming home at the very back of the front group. However, result sheets do not tell the whole story and as alluded to earlier, Moscon had enjoyed a fruitful spell at the head of the race. With the front three groups on the road coming together at the foot of the Muur van Geraardsbergen, fractures were bound to happen on the cobbled climb, and fracture it did as Gianni Moscon pushed the pace at the head of proceedings. He opened a small gap as he crested the climb and passed the Kapelmuur (the chapel at the top), maintaining a gap at the front until halfway up the final climb of the day, the famed Bosberg. It was only at this point that he was swamped by the oncoming bunch, led in part by Julian Alaphilippe.

It is not the first impressive showing of the season by Moscon, with he serving as 1/3 of the first day breakaway at Tour de la Provence, completed by the presence of Julian Alaphilippe and Giulio Ciccone. The break lasted for around 68km and mounted a valiant effort at holding off a determined peloton. It was not to be for Moscon and co on the day, neither was it to be for the Italian on Saturday, but he is showing glimpses of the form needed to take his first WorldTour victory since stage 4 of the 2018 Gree-Tour of Guangxi.

Davide Ballerini has well and truly found his calling.

At the age of 26, Davide Ballerini appears to be enjoying a breakthrough season, with wins at Tour de la Provence, in the opening two stages, being backed up by a terrific victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad at the weekend. His Spring Classics season started in perfect fashion and Ballerini now appears to be a big contender to take a more prestigious victory in the near future, despite the ominous stat of no male rider ever winning Ronde van Vlaanderen and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in the same season (it's ok Davide, look to Lizzie Deignan for inspiration).

This course of action hasn't always been clear for the Italian, making his sudden rise this year even more impressive. Ballerini entered the WorldTour as a trainee with Tinkoff in 2016, but first made his home at Androni (in their various names) for the following two seasons, where he would often get himself into doomed breakaways, only being rewarded on the one occasion he won the Mountains Classification at the 2017 Tirreno-Adriatico. Following a move to Astana ahead of the 2019 season, Ballerini served as a domestique and was a non-finisher in that year's Omloop. His career appeared to be drifting towards the direction of serving as a reliable domestique, possibly a lead-out man when given the chance. However this year has seen the Italian start his second season with Deceuninck-Quick Step in stellar form, cementing his position as a protected rider for the team. After picking up a victory at last year's Tour of Poland, he showed a few impressive performances which no doubt brought confidence into the new season: 2nd at the Italian National Championships Road Race; 2nd at the Brussels Cycling Classic and 3rd at stage 3 of the Giro d'Italia.

Following his three victories this season, many have likened the rider to John Degenkolb (impressive at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne yesterday) and Alexander Kristoff, with all three packing a punch in the sprint, whilst being able to survive with the Classics specialists over tough terrain. This is where Ballerini's future lies for now, and he would be a solid outside bet to pick up a Monument victory this year. Watch this space.

Anna van der Breggen is not slowing down anytime soon.

Having announced her plans to retire after the Olympic Games, expected to be at the end of 2020, one would be forgiven for expecting Anna van der Breggen to slowly wind down to her post-racing career as a DS at SD Worx. However, the truth is in fact the opposite, rather than slowing down, the World Champion appears to be getting better with every race. After a stellar 2020 that included victories at the World Championships (road race and time trial double), La Flèche Wallone and the Giro Rosa, Van der Breggen kicked off her new season in style as she soloed to victory at the women's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Anna van der Breggen opens her final season as a professional in style. © Getty Images

Inside the final 45km, SD Worx moved to the front of the peloton and it is fair to say they decimated the bunch, largely owed to the work of Van der Breggen. The work did not stop there and for the next 30km or so, it was Van der Breggan who tore apart the bunch and set up the conditions for her teammate Demi Vollering to attack. To all intents and purposes, it appeared as though Van der Breggen's job for the day was to work in the service of her illustrious teammates, helping the World Champion to get a solid day's work in the legs ahead of bigger targets. However, in a similar fashion to Mathieu van der Poel (more on that anon), Anna van der Breggan does not play by the rules and with Vollering's attack neutralised, it was the World Champion that attacked on the Bosberg and simply rode away from the rest of the field. For the remainder of the race fans at home were served with the privilege of watching a master in full flight, as Van der Breggen engaged in her trademark majestic pedalling technique, making use of every watt of energy she put out. It quickly became apparent that she would not be caught and the chasing group admitted defeat, preparing themselves to sprint for second place. The Dutchwoman came home 23 seconds ahead of the bunch and took her second victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, telling us all what we probably already knew- Anna van der Breggen is not slowing down anytime soon and is to be feared for the rest of the season.

Dylan Teuns, Jhonatan Narváez and Jonas Hvideberg are riders to watch this season.

In yesterday's Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Bahrain Victorious rider Dylan Teuns put in one of the most commendable rides of the day, with frequent attacks and selfless teamwork towards the end. With 53.5km to go and with John Degenkolb looking impressive at the head of a reduced bunch, it was Dylan Teuns who counter-attacked the German and forced the pace, resulting in a dwindled down group. His moves were aggressive and effective, each time requiring a committed chase from behind- oh, also, from all of us at Casquettes and Bidons, we must applaud Teuns for wearing a cassette whilst performing like a beast! Whilst none of his attacks were ultimately successful, this did not end his day's work, with the Belgian working diligently on the front of the third group on the road to bring his teammates back into contention. His group made the catch with 11.7km to go and Teuns produced vital work to then bring in the leading group on the road, with the group containing Mathieu Van der Poel being caught with 1700m to go. His work was rewarded with a tremendous 4th place finish from teammate Heinrich Haussler, who has gone from washing his own bike in the Cyclocross season to showing excellent form in the early Spring Classics- well done that man! As for Teuns, it was an energetic display and whilst the man from Diest may be better suited to the Ardennes Classics, he is certainly to be watched in the coming weeks.

Another man who does not immediately jump out as a specialist in the Spring Classics is Jhonatan Narváez, but the Ecuadorian has found himself at home on the cobbles in the past two days. He was regularly on the camera at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday, making his presence felt and ultimately finishing in the first group. But his performance at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne was something to behold as he attacked from the peloton alongside Mathieu Van der Poel with 85km still to race. As he saw the Dutchman attack on the a seemingly innocuous climb, Narváez was the only man to follow the wheel, resulting in the two pairing up to mount a chase towards the head of the race. Slowly but surely the pair made their way to the breakaway, with Narváez holding his own with Van der Poel and contributing immensely to the chase. Once the pair embedded themselves into the leading group, Narváez had obviously won the respect of Van der Poel, with the Dutch Champion waiting to make a move until the Ecuadorian had moved to the front of the group, ensuring that he would have an ally at the front.

Mathieu van der Poel and Jhonatan Narváez work in tandem to reel in the breakaway. © Chris Auld

As it turned out, Van der Poel's inevitable attack highlighted two of the riders to watch over the coming months. Only Narváez and the little-known Jonas Hvideberg could follow Van der Poel's attack on the Kluisberg, with the rest of the breakaway being torn apart. These three opened a gap and began to look like they had made what could have been the race-winning move. The ride of Hvideberg was particularly impressive as he had been working in the breakaway all day, making sure that Uno-X Pro Cycling Team delivered a performance to back up their inclusion as a wildcard invitation to the race. The Under-23 European Champion found himself at the head of the race and whilst a couple of breakaway riders made their way back to the front group, his performance to inititally stay the pace with Van der Poel should not be overlooked.

Once the group had consolidated at the head of the race, the 'Van der Poel and Narváez Show' began in earnest, with the pair contributing approximately 80% of the breakaway's workload between themselves. Whilst the survivors of the day's first breakaway held on for dear life, Van der Poel and Narváez produced lengthy turns on the front and rarely dropped to the back of the group, ensuring that the chase behind would only be succesful if full commitment was delivered. The chase was indeed successful, but the ride of Narváez is to be applauded. As the first Ecuadorian to ever start a Spring Classic, he has quickly made himself at home and will be a cheeky outside bet to deliver a good result over the coming campaign. It has been a great six months for the Ineos Grenadier, with his weekend's performances being preceded by a stage victory into Cesenatico at last year's Giro d'Italia.

Mathieu van der Poel does not follow the usual playbook.

We already knew this, didn't we? But hey, don't criticise my article like that!

Beginning the day by voicing his commitment to work as part of the lead-out for teammate Tim Merlier, Van der Poel ended the day having been out front for around 83km. As Adam Blythe cheekily noted on commentary, it was the longest lead-out of all time! In a beautifully timed move with the television coverage having just started, Van der Poel attacked on an aforementioned innocuous climb, proving that Van der Poel does what Van der Poel wants to do- the peloton are just living in his world! Over the course of the next 83km, whether it be in the two-man chase with Narváez, or the leading group on the road, the Dutchman took up the lion's share of the work as he routinely performed kilometres-long spells in the wind. In fact, whilst in the front group, Van der Poel was rarely seen not on the front of the group, showing that he's a man who does not fear putting his head in the wind.

As the groups on the road came back together within the final 2km, we pondered whether we would see a repeat of last Sunday, when Van der Poel took victory in the sprint at the UAE Tour after engaging in a day-long breakaway. Alas, it was not to be and Van der Poel ran out of steam in the final 500m- to be expected given this was only his second race day of the road season thus far. Having hoped to have gone into Strade Bianche next week with a full UAE Tour under his belt, his premature withdrawal from the race has resulted in under preparation for what many refer to as the 'sixth Monument'. Consequently, the Dutch Champion has announced he will ride in tomorrow's Le Samyn. One can only imagine what carnage Van der Poel will unleash in the race, or perhaps he really will work for Tim Merlier... somehow we don't quite think so!

Mads Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven are a charming duo and deserve all the love in the world!

We are a long way into this article and have shamefully barely mentioned the name of the Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne winner, Mads Pedersen. Well let that nonsense end now!

Mads Pedersen takes his second victory in a Spring Classic, following his success at last year's Gent-Wevelgem. © Getty Images

In the foreground of the above picture- Mads Pedersen sprinting to victory. In the background- Jasper Stuyven punching the air in delight as he sees his teammate taste success. It was a beautiful moment, as were the the moments beyond the finish line, as Mads and Jasper embraced and exchanged a loving hug, oh... and many expletives! Though, apparently the F-bomb is not so inappropriate to the Danes! I envy them.

Pedersen's victory will also be Stuyven's victory, with the Belgian teammate of the former World Champion proving invaluable in the lead-out. After a totally invisible showing in Saturday's Omloop, success at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne will taste sweet to Trek-Segafredo, with their formidable Classics lineup delivering the goods. The goods in this case being a donkey, yes you read that right- a donkey. And an adorable teddy it is! Well done Mads Pedersen and long live the dynamic duo of Jasper and Mads.

NB Mads actually gifted the donkey to Jasper on the team bus after the race! Have a click here and you will find the sweet moment on Trek-Segafredo's Twitter page.

Have your say!

I hope you enjoyed our reflections on Opening Weekend, it certainly was an incredible start to the Classics campaign and the excitement is palpable.

These were the things we learned from the weekend, but we'd love to hear what you took away from the two races. We'd equally love to hear if you disagree with any of our conclusions. Let us know by commenting below this article or getting in touch with us on Twitter! Our handle is @casquettesb.

Bring on Strade Bianche, eh!

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