Alaphilippe takes on the cobblestones for Deceuninck-Quick-Step
As seems to be the case every year, Deceuninck-Quick-Step begin the spring Classics as the clear team to beat, with line-ups chock-full of talent for both of the ‘Opening Weekend’ cobbled double-header of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
For this year’s campaign, however, they may adopt a subtly different approach in order to counter the threats posed by deadly new superstars Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) - Van Aert will not be racing Opening Weekend by Van der Poel is a late addition to the Kuurne start list after leaving the UAE Tour early due to a coronavirus positive in his team.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s recent dominance in the cobbled Classics has been largely down to strength-in-depth, with their riders working together as team-mates to overwhelm the opposition, sharing success around the squad with no single outstanding individual acting as outright leader. But up against riders of the quality of Van der Poel and Van Aert, this approach may not be sufficient, and a true successor to the great Tom Boonen may at last be required.
Step forward Julian Alaphilippe. The world champion is, for the first time in his career, targeting the cobbled Classics, and his Tour of Flanders debut last autumn — where he rode away from the rest of the field along with Van der Poel and Van Aert before abandoning from a crash — suggests he’s more than able of handling himself on the pavé. While he won't face either of Van der Poel of Van Aert at Omloop, the Frenchman will face a tough test against a star-studded field in which he starts as favourite on his debut.
The team still has plenty of cards to play: defending Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne champion Kasper Asgreen will ride both races along with usual suspects Zdeněk Štybar and Yves Lampaert, while Davide Ballerini will ride Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on the back of his two stages wins at Tour de la Provence, and Álvaro Hodeg gives them a possible sprinting option for Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. But Alaphilippe (already on great form at the Tour de la Provence) will be the main man at Omloop, and the team will hope he puts in a performance that suggests he’s capable of replicating Boonen’s past brilliance, and beating Van de Poel and Van Aert in the major cobbled classics to come.
New line-ups and joint leaders
In the absence of Wout van Aert, Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s riders were the clear favourites for both races, but the late addition of Van der Poel in Kuurne means the cyclocross world champion is now probably favourite for victory on Sunday.
Several other teams will bring new and improved line-ups featuring multiple potential winners to the first cobbled Classics of the season.
For Ag2r Citröen, new signing Greg van Avermaet (winner of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2016 and 2017) will line-up alongside team-mate Oliver Naesen for the first time, as the team begin their shift towards focussing on the cobbled Classics, while Matteo Trentin begins what could be a fruitful relationship with Alexander Kristoff as the pair ride their first race as UAE Team Emirates team-mates.
They will attempt to replicate the kind of success the Trek-Segafredo duo of Jasper Stuyven and Mads Pedersen enjoyed last season, when the former won Omloop and the latter Gent-Wevelgem; they will rekindle their partnership in both races this weekend. Lotto-Soudal can at last pair Tim Wellens (who is on great form following overall victory at Étoile de Bessèges) with Philippe Gilbert after the latter missed last year’s Classics due to injury, while sprinter John Degenkolb will take the reins at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
SD Worx v Trek-Segafredo in women’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
After sharing most of the major Classics between them last year, SD Worx (formerly Boels-Dolmans) and Trek-Segafredo will renew their rivalry at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
World champion Anna van der Breggen will be the star woman for SD Worx, and Trek-Segafredo will be sure to mark any move she tries to make. But they should also be similarly wary of the threat posed by her team-mate Chantal Van den Broek-Blaak, and can’t afford to let her slip off the front — as happened at last year’s Tour of Flanders, which Van den Broek-Blaak won with a solo attack.
With their aggressive duo of Elisa Longo Borghini and 2016 winner Lizzie Deignan, Trek-Segafredo aren’t likely to simply follow moves, but rather adopt an assertive approach themselves. The pair formed a brilliant partnership last year, attacking in tandem and sacrificing their own chances to help the other out, so are equally capable of outmaneuvering SD Worx.
Even in the unlikely event that the race culminates in a large sprint finish for what would be only the second time in the last 12 editions, both teams could be evenly matched, with Trek-Segafredo now able to rely on new signing Chloe Hosking for a sprint, potentially against SD Worx’s Jolien d’Hoore and Amy Pieters. Whatever shape the race takes, this promises to be a competitive showdown between the two teams.
Van Vleuten among stars making debuts for new teams
There’s no doubt what the biggest change in the women’s peloton for the 2021 is — Annemiek van Vleuten’s transfer to Movistar. The Dutchwoman will make her debut for her new team on Saturday, and will hope to start this season in the same manner as she began the last, when victory here with a brutal solo attack was the first of what turned out to be a breath-taking five-race winning streak.
Unlike her compatriot and rival Anna van der Breggen, Van Vleuten has tended to ride as a big fish in a small pond, and will continue to do so at Movistar, whose roster lacks any other big names. The lack of star team-mates has never hindered her in the past, and will, if on her best form, cause even teams with the collective strength of SD Worx and Trek-Segafredo serious headaches with her devastating accelerations over the cobbles.
Also turning out for a new team for the first time will be Lotte Kopecky, who has signed for Liv Racing after impressing with her quick sprint and ability over the cobbles for Lotto-Soudal last year, while the sudden demise of Equipe Pauline Ka means both Marlen Reusser and Britain’s Lizzie Banks will begin their 2021 season also riding for new teams (Ale BTC Ljubljana and Ceratizit-WNT respectively).
They will all be in with a shout of victory in what is an open race, as will the likes of Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon/SRAM), Cecile Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine-Futuroscope) and Marta Bastianelli (Ale BTC Ljubljana). Beginning a Classics campaign that will, for the first time ever, end with the inaugural women’s Paris-Roubaix, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is likely to be more hotly contested than ever.
Pidcock makes hotly-anticipated Classics debut
One of the most intriguing questions ahead of Opening Weekend, which British fans in particular will be pondering, is how well Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) will go in both races.
Until recently, expecting a 21-year-old neo-pro making his senior cobbled Classics debut to aim for anything other than merely making it to the finish would feel like asking for too much. But the rapid maturity of other young talents in recent years has changed perceptions of what’s deemed possible for young riders and Pidcock himself looks like an uncommonly special talent, having won Paris-Roubaix at both Junior and Under-23 level, as well as the Baby Giro d’Italia in dominant fashion last year.
Although Ineos Grenadiers have a decent line-up featuring the likes of Gianni Moscon and Brits Owain Doull and Ethan Hayter (who is himself another young talent to look out for), they don’t have an obvious designated leader, meaning Pidcock should have a certain degree of freedom to ride for himself if he has the legs. And, encouragingly, he certainly wasn’t too far off the pace set by Van der Poel and Van Aert during the cyclocross season.
If his (albeit very suspect) Strava upload of a five-kilometre run is anything to go by, Pidcock is capable of great surprises. We shouldn’t heap too many expectations on him ahead of this weekend, but should neither dismiss his chances of putting in some big rides.
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