Glorious day for Italian cycling
What a day to be an Italian cycling fan! First Marta Bastianelli capped off an exceptional spring by winning the women’s Tour of Flanders, then Alberto Bettiol stunned the favourites to win the men’s race.
Of the two victories, Bastianelli’s was comfortably the more predictable. The Virtu Cycling rider has been in the form of her life, claiming victories at Omloop van het Hageland and Ronde van Drenthe, and once she broke clear with Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott), Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Bigla) and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) on the Oude Kwaremont, her superior sprint made victory seem almost inevitable.
In the men's race, few saw Bettiol’s win coming. The 25-year old had shown promising form to finish fourth at the E3 BinckBank Classic, but no-one was quite prepared for just how explosive he would be on the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont.
Following great work from his EF Education First teammate Sep Vanmarcke to set up that attack - having selflessly sacrificed his own chances by dropping back from a leading breakaway he was in - Sebastian Langeveld then did an equally excellent job of disrupting the chasing pack, allowing Bettiol to solo 17km to the finish.
This is not only the biggest win of the 25-year old’s professional career, but literally the only win of his career. Given the magnitude of this result and the supreme strength he produced to pull it off, it certainly won’t be his last.
Deceuninck - Quick-Step stars come up short
They might have won a total of 20 races this season, including five WorldTour Classics, but Deceuninck - Quick-Step will be bitterly disappointed to have missed out on the Tour of Flanders.
The riders who have featured so prominently in the cobbled classics up until now were all short of their best today. Zdenek Štybar was missing from the selections formed at the endgame of the race, Philippe Gilbert was clearly still struggling with stomach problems, Yves Lampaert didn’t have the legs to make any attacks in the finale, and Bob Jungels was seen struggling to stay in contact on the last ascent of the Paterberg.
However, their race was redeemed by a revelatory performance from Kasper Asgreen. Not only was the 24-year Dane a major animator early on in the race, spending nearly 40km off the front of the race with Sep Vanmarcke, Dylan van Baarle (Team Sky) and Stijn Vandenbergh (Ag2r La Mondiale), he even had the legs to attack out of the chasing group of favourites and claim second place on his debut Tour of Flanders.
Failing to make it three Ronde wins in three years will hurt Deceuninck - Quick-Step, but the team can take heart from the fact they seem to have unearthed yet another new young star.
Van der Poel makes an astonishing comeback
There were plenty of painful reminders of the role bad luck can play at the Tour of Flanders. In the men’s race, Niki Terpstra’s (Direct Energie) title defence came to an end when he hit the tarmac early on in the race, while a puncture prevented Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) from contesting the finale of the women’s race having just made the decisive selection.
When Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) lost his balance after suffering a mechanical during the lead-up to the crucial second time up the Oude Kwaremont, the force with which he hit the tarmac suggested his day had also come to a premature end. He sat on the road holding his arm in a position that seemed to hint at a broken collarbone, but such fears were alleviated when he remounted his bike and began to chase back up to the peloton.
At this stage merely finishing the race would have been impressive, but the young Dutch prodigy did so much more than that. First the TV motorbikes picked up images of him storming up the Kwaremont, working his way through the many riders dropped from the peloton. Later, to much astonishment, he was spotted back in the peloton.
Despite this monumental effort, van der Poel somehow still had the legs to not only make the selection of the final climbs, but also sprint for fourth place, only just missing out on a podium finish to Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates).
It was one of the most impressive debuts in the history of the Tour of Flanders, and further evidence of van der Poel’s once-in-a-generation talent.
The Oude Kwaremont proves decisive
In recent years, it’s been long-range moves and surprise stealth attacks that have brought success at the Ronde. Last year, it was the Kruisberg that proved decisive, with both Niki Terpstra and Anna van der Breggen making their winning moves there, while in 2017 Philippe Gilbert famously embarked on a huge attack over 50km from the finish to claim victory.
This year, however, it was the final climb up the Oude Kwaremont that proved decisive in both races. It was here that Bettiol burst out of the peloton, and here also where Bastianelli first broke clear with four (later reduced to two) other riders.
Interestingly, although winning attacks on the climb have been fairly common in the women’s race, this was the first time that a rider won the men’s race with a solo attack on it.
Unlike the old Tour of Flanders route, where the Kapelmuur was widely recognised as the crucial climb where winning moves were generally made, no such consensus has formed regarding the current route, despite it now being eight editions old. With this level of unpredictability, perhaps it’s not so much when or where you attack that matters, so long as you take your rivals by surprise.
Big names left disappointed
Greg Van Avermaet’s (CCC Team) career-long quest for a Tour of Flanders continues. The Belgian took it upon himself to set the pace on the final climbs of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, but was unable to break clear, and ultimately had to settle for tenth.
Fears of Peter Sagan’s (Bora-Hansgrohe) undercooked form were confirmed, as the Slovak was again found lacking in the race’s finale, finishing eleventh.
They were outshone by three riders making their debuts, all of whom should be delighted by their performance - van der Poel finishing fourth, Michael Matthews (Sunweb) survived the challenging bergs to make the group of favourites and sprint for sixth, and world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) took to the cobblestones like a duck to water, finishing eighth.
In the women’s race, Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) missed out on a chance to claim a first ever Tour of Flanders victory when she was dropped on the Paterberg, having made the initial four-woman selection.
Meanwhile Boels-Dolmans’ uncharacteristically quiet spring continued, with Chantal Blaak their highest finisher in seventh - her sixth top ten finish in ten attempts at the Ronde.
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