Alaphilippe’s return presents Deceuninck-Quick-Step a tactical dilemma
One of the most impressive things about Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s all-conquering display at last week’s E3 Saxo Bank Classic was how they managed to so thoroughly dominate the race even without their star rider, Julian Alaphilippe.
The Frenchman has not raced any of the Classics since Milan-San Remo, but will return at Dwars door Vlaanderen to re-join many of the riders who were a part of that triumphant at E3 Saxo Bank victory, including Florian Sénéchal Davide Ballerini, Yves Lampaert, and the winner Kasper Asgreen.
He’ll no doubt be itching to get racing on the cobbles again, but if Deceuninck-Quick-Step are to repeat their success from last Friday, and again get the better of Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), he may need to reign in some of his usual instincts.
On paper, Alaphilippe and Van der Poel are the two strongest riders in the race, so could in theory work together to ride away from the rest of the field, but such a scenario would not maximise Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s chances of victory.
Instead, Alaphilippe would be better deployed as a sort of man-marker of Van der Poel while his team-mates make the early attacks; and even if the duo do break away, he should refuse to take any turns, in order to try to exploit Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s numerical advantage.
It’s unusual not to see Alaphilippe give his all in any attack he is a part of, but both himself and his team need him to ride smart if they’re to repeat their E3 Saxo Bank success.
Van der Poel may need brains as well as brawn to win
In the absence of Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), who’s skipping this race, Van der Poel is the clear favourite to take victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Not only is he defending champion having triumphed in 2019 (the 2020 edition was cancelled due to the pandemic), he’s also had sensational legs this season.
The Dutchman may need more than pure strength alone if he’s to win on Wednesday, however. Despite his form, he’s missed out on victory in each of the last two Classics he’s ridden, failing, along with all the other favourites, to recognise the danger when Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) attacked in Milan-San Remo, and being overwhelmed by the attacks from Deceuninck-Quick-Step at E3 Saxo Bank Classic.
Since bursting onto the scene in 2019, Van der Poels tactics in road cycling have been questionable. He often uses up lots of energy early on when conventional wisdom suggests saving energy for later would be advisable, and he generally positions himself much further down the bunch than most other favourites.
These tactical faux pas have hardly prevented him from winning prolifically, but may become a problem the more his rivals become familiar with and accustomed to the way he races, and plot ways in which he can be beaten.
Van Vleuten and Norsgaard Join forces for Movistar
Annemiek van Vleuten was the marquee acquisition for 2021 through whom Movistar planned to become a major player in women’s cycling but so far the Dutchwoman has only appeared in two races, and is yet to get up to full speed.
Instead, a rider 17 years her junior, Emma Norsgaard, has been the team’s star performer so far.
The 21-year-old did enjoy some success last year, as evidenced by the Danish national champion jersey she’s wearing this season, but has taken a new leap during the last month of the 2021 season. She began by winning the sprint to finish second behind Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx) at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and has since sprinted to a couple more Classics podium finishes at Le Samyn and Classic Brugge-De Panne.
On Wednesday, Norsgaard and Van Vleuten will line-up together for just the second time, and look as though they ought to complement each other perfectly. Van Vleuten is a naturally attacking rider who loves to get up the road whenever she can, while Norsgaard’s fast finish means she should benefit from sitting on wheels while others work to contain Van Vleuten, saving herself for a sprint finish.
Together, they could form a lethal partnership that will threaten the recent dominance of SD Worx and Trek-Segafredo.
Van Dijk takes centre stage for Trek-Segafredo
In recent years, Ellen van Dijk has been deployed predominantly as a super-domestique by Trek-Segafredo, using her brute force more in service of team-mates Elisa Longo Borghini and Lizze Deignan than for her own personal ambitions.
On Wednesday, however, she’ll be the team’s designated rider, in a race she has enjoyed great success at in the past. She won from a solo attack 15km from the finish the last time the race was held in 2019, having won in a similar manner the year before.
With Borghini and Deignan both saving themselves for Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, Van Dijk will be undisputed leader for Trek-Segafredo, and will have a quality line-up of domestiques at her disposal, including Lucinda Brand, Audrey Cordon-Ragiot and Ruth Winder.
With SD Worx not featuring, Van Dijk has a great chance of making it a hat-trick of victories.
A host of other contenders
In the men’s WorldTour, the only cobbled Classics since the beginning of 2020 not to have been won by either Van der Poel, Van Aert or Deceuninck-Quick-Step have instead been won by the Trek-Segafredo duo of Mads Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven, and both will again be among the main favourites as the team returns to racing after having to pull out of Ghent-Wevelgem to due to a Covid positive.
By contrast, Ag2r Citroën’s duo of Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen have been winless in that time, but both have looked in very good form recently and will hope to translate their good legs into a winning result on Wednesday.
Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers), Anthony Turgis (Total Direct Energie) and Ghent-Wevelgem podium finisher Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) have all also been among the best performers on the cobbles so far this year, and will be in with a chance of victory.
The women’s Dwars door Vlaanderen is not part of the WorldTour, and therefore there are many high-profile absentees, including the whole SD Worx squad.
Grace Brown (BikeExchange) will be riding though, and will hope to pull-off a move like the solo attack she made to win Classic Brugge-De Panne, while Marta Bastianelli (Ale BTC Ljubljana) and Soraya Paladin (Liv Racing) looked in great shape during the weekend at Ghent-Wevelgem and are potential winners.
The lighter field also presents Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) a good chance to take her first win in almost two years, while DSM will hope their misfiring duo of Liane Lippert and Lorena Wiebes can ride into some form.