The main talking points after the opening weekend of the 2018 cobbled classics in Belgium
Astana look strong despite troubling news
What an emotional rollercoaster of a weekend it was for Astana.
It started with the worrying story that, according to manager Alexandre Vinokourov, funding for the new season had not yet been received, bringing to question the future of the team.
Unperturbed by the news, the Astana riders produced an excellent display at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Placing three riders – Michael Valgren, Oscar Gatto and Alexey Lutsenko – in the selection made on the Muur, they made their numerical advantage count, as Valgren slipped away inside the final 2km to win the race.
It was a surprising result both in the sense that Astana do not tend to excel in the northern classics, and as Valgren had not been outlined as a major contender. The Dane will certainly be one to watch for the rest of the spring.
They looked strong at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne too, with their riders doing the majority of the work as the peloton brought back a dangerous group, but crashes suffered by Lutsenko and Magnus Cort Nielsen scuppered their hopes of competing for the win.
The riders have done their best to prove their worth – for the sake of their futures, hopefully whatever behind-the-scenes issues may be unfolding are resolved.
Dylan Groenewegen is a man for the classics
Up until now we’ve generally known Dylan Groenewegen as a pure sprinter, whose considerable potential in the bunch finishes was confirmed upon winning on the Champs Elysees on the final day of last year’s Tour de France.
His win on Sunday at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne proves he has more strings to his bow.
The 24-year old may not have made the initial split, when a group of over 20 riders escaped up the road, but was brought back thanks to work from his teammates and Astana, and demonstrated tough resolve to hang on to a splintering peloton during the few laps preceding the finish.
By the time Groenewegen reached the finishing straight the hardest part had already been done, but the composure he showed to delay his sprint until the right moment, and the ease with which he flew past Arnaud Démare to take the victory, was very impressive.
As a Dutch rider the northern classics are in his blood. The more challenging races like the Tour of Flanders are probably beyond him for now, but watch out for him at the likes of Ghent-Wevelgem and Scheldeprijs.
This could be an open Spring Classics campaign
One conclusion that can be drawn from the weekend’s racing is that we could be in for an open Spring Classics campaign.
This time last year Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan had been firmly established as the strongest riders, with the former winning Het Nieuwsblad, and the latter finishing behind him in second before going on to win Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
This year, however, no such hierarchy has been formed. Van Avermaet was impressive but hardly the invisible rider of 2017 – in fact, his 56th placing at Het Nieuwsblad was the first time he has failed to make the top six in that race since 2011.
Perhaps the strongest rider across both races was Sep Vanmarcke. At Het Nieuwsblad he was the first rider over the Muur, produced the powerful acceleration that softened up the lead group for Valgren’s race-winning counter-attack, and even had the strength to attack again in the finale to finish third.
He was less conspicuous at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, but was still present in all the key selections. On this showing the Belgian may be the one to watch this spring, but still seems to be suffering from his perennial problem of how to convert his strength into victories.
And of course, we’re yet to see Sagan race on the cobbles this year. With no other rider emerging as a front-runner, perhaps this will be a spring dominated by him?
Quick-Step Floors endure an underwhelming weekend
The pressure is always on Quick-Step Floors to perform in their home races, which makes their timid display in both races particularly disappointing.
On paper the Belgian team looked the strongest in the peloton for both races, but things did not play out that way on the road.
Although Philippe Gilbert saved face by sprinting for fifth at Het Nieuwsblad, the fact that only one rider on their roster – Zdenek Stybar – appeared capable of following the major moves, was worrying.
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne was worse still, with Yves Lampaert their highest finisher in 12th.
Niki Terpstra was uncharacteristically quiet in both races, while crashes and the cold weather prevented Fernando Gaviria from making the impression he’d hoped to.
Patrick Lefevere’s outfit will be desperate to improve quickly and get the campaign back on track.
Lukasz Wisniowski emerges as an another classics contender for Sky
Team Sky may have left their A-team of classics specialists at home, but in their place Lukasz Wisniowski put in a gutsy ride to finish second at Het Nieuwsblad.
The Pole just about managed to bridge across to the lead group after the Muur, and was subsequently seen hanging on for dear life at the back.
Nevertheless, he enjoyed a second wind in the finale, when he responded to an attack from Vanmarcke to escape the bunch and outsprint the Belgian for a very impressive second place. He backed this up with eighth in Kuurne on Sunday.
Wiśniowski did good work riding as a domestique last year, and prior to joining Sky had picked up some impressive results, most notably placing fifth at the 2016 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
If he continues to improve, the 26-year old might yet become another potential leader in an already star-studded Sky classics squad.