Another Deceuninck - Quick-Step tactical masterclass
The Belgian team has evolved over the years from a squad built around the great Tom Boonen, to one that continued to dominate the Classics with a collective style of racing summed up by their ‘Wolfpack’ nickname, but never before have they had to come up against rivals as talented as Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix).
It’s the biggest challenge Deceuninck - Quick-Step faced in years, but they passed with flying colours. They began by blowing the race up on the Taaienberg, approaching it almost as if it were a sprint finish with lead-out riders emptying themselves on the run-in to it, and by the top they had four riders — Zdenek Štybar, Yves Lampaert, Florian Sénéchal and Kasper Asgreen — in a small group of favourites. Two climbs later, Asgreen went up the road, giving the other favourites someone to chase, while Lampaert, Sénéchal and Štybar marked wheels, and made all the important selections when the chasing group reformed and morphed throughout the race.
When Asgreen was at last set to be caught on the run-in to the finish, Sénéchal and Štybar made up two-fifth of a chasing group now down to just five riders (Lampaert was unfortunate to drop back after puncturing).
Despite being caught, it was Asgreen who made the race-winning attack 5km from the finish, but it really could have been any of those three riders to make the winning move. Sénéchal won the sprint for second, finishing off a glorious one-two for Deceuninck - Quick-Step, a result that accurately reflects just how dominant they were.
Kasper Asgreen astonishes with reserves of strength
As much as Deceuninck - Quick-Step’s victory was a result of exemplary teamwork and strategy, the brilliance of the ride from winner Kasper Asgreen should not be downplayed.
When he first attacked on the Boigneberg 70m from the finish, it looked as if his role in the race was to be a rabbit for the others to catch, and that he’d use up as much energy as possible in order to allow his teammates to triumph later on.
To have the legs not only to stay out all on his own for as long as he did (almost 60km in total), but to then mount yet another attack that ultimately was the race-winning move, is truly extraordinary.
Asgreen has wowed us before with his engine, notably at last year’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne where he won with an attack 20km from the finish, and is one of the best time trialists in the world, with a silver at the 2019 European Championships to his name.
But this was the best ride yet of his career, and shows that, at 26 years of age, he’s still developing into one of the most fearsome rouleurs in the peloton.
Wout van Aert tries to do too much
Did Wout van Aert overestimate his strength?
Given the form he’s been on this spring, you can understand why he might have felt capable of chasing all of the breaks single-handedly, but the way he faded in the finale of E3 SaxoBank suggests he went too deep.
Rather than worry about towing others to the line, and goading them to do work, the Belgian opted to take things into his own hands, taking the majority of turns in the chasing group behind Kasper Asgreen.
He appeared to pay for all the work he did on the final climb of the day, the Tiegemberg. Despite launching an attack on it, he abruptly ran out of legs, and was passed not only by Van der Poel, but also five other riders, who he was helpless to catch up to on the run-in to the finish.
He was therefore only able to finish eleventh in a chasing group behind, bringing to an end an extraordinary run of finishing in the top ten of each of the last eight one-day races he has competed in. He’ll be disappointed, but might have learned an invaluable lesson ahead of the Tour of Flanders about not burning too many matches too early on.
Ag2r Citroën’s new classics partnership shows form for the first time
Ag2r Citroén have changed their focus away from stage racing and Grand Tours to springtime and the cobbled Classics for 2021, and E3 was the first real sign of success of this rebrand.
New signing Greg van Avermaet produced his best performance so far in Ag2r colours to finish sixth, while Oliver Naesen also showed that he was coming into his best form at just the right time with a fourth-place finish.
Early on, however, it looked as though they could be in for a bad day as both riders missed the split made by Deceuninck - Quick-Step on the Taaienberg. They persevered, however, and following a regrouping Naesen craftily slipped into a breakaway group, and was later joined by Van Avermaet, who was, along with Van der Poel, Van Aert and Zdenek Štybar, one of the strongest riders on the Paterberg.
Having got two riders in the final six-man selection, they might rue not doing better in the finale. Both Van Avermaet and Naesen attempted to bring back Asgreen with solo bursts out of the chase group, but their mistake might have been in not pre-empting the Dane’s move with an earlier attack themselves.
Still, the result shows that both riders have the form, and could land Ag2r Citroën a major Classic this spring.
Riders’s form revealed with Ronde on the horizon
As the cobbled Monuments of early April approach, the E3 SaxoBank Classic gave a real insight into which Classics specialists are hitting form as the most important week of their season approaches.
While Deceuninck - Quick-Step, Ag2r Citroën, Van der Poel and Van Aert are all clearly on flying form, others will be more concerned.
Despite looking great a few weeks ago, Tom Pidcock was nowhere to be seen , as team-mate Dylan van Baarle instead stood out as Ineos Grenadiers’s outstanding rider by finishing seventh.
Also missing in action was Sep Vanmarcke (Israel Start-Up), who had to settle for a rare finish outside of the top-10, plus Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal) and Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo).
Others, like Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates), who suffered a puncture after making the selection on the Taaienberg, appeared to be victims of bad luck rather than bad legs. But for those off the pace, there isn’t long to get into form before the Tour of Flanders a week on Sunday.
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