Van der Poel and Van Aert do battle on the cobbles
Of all the cobbled Classics that precede the Tour of Flanders, the E3 Saxo Bank tends to be the most selective. The relentless nature of the cobbled climbs ensures that the riders are left scattered all across the road, and not since 2012 has a group larger than five still been in contention for victory at the finish.
As such, we can expect the cream to rise to the top in the 2021 edition this Friday, which must surely mean one thing — another showdown between Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma).
Although they’ve raced against each other plenty of times already this year, from the Cyclocross season to last weekend’s Milan-San Remo, this will be the first time they’ve done battle on the cobblestones since last year’s memorable Tour of Flanders.
Considering just how big an impact he’s had, it’s easy to forget that this is Van der Poel’s first full campaign of spring Classics. This will be his E3 debut, and it’s a race that appears to suit him down to the ground, with a difficult parcours that provides plenty of chances to launch one of his trademark long-range attacks.
Van Aert, by contrast, has ridden before in 2019, on which occasion he finished second in a sprint behind Zdeněk Štybar.
Although Van der Poel currently has four wins this season to Van Aert’s two, there has been very little to choose between them so far. This could be another thrillingly tight battle.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step seek to exploit strength in numbers
So far this spring, Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s solution to overcoming the problem posed by Van der Poel and Van Aert by backing Julian Alaphilippe.
The Frenchman has been strong, reaching the finale of Strade Bianche with just Van der Poel for company, and going clear in the break over the top of the Poggio at Milan-San Remo. But he failed to win both of those races, which for a team with the historical record and exceptionally high standards of Deceuninck-Quick-Step, must go down as disappointments.
With Alaphilippe skipping the E3 Saxo Bank Classic, the team are likely to adopt a very different strategy. Without an obvious leader to rally behind, their best hopes instead lie in riding unpredictability, with riders working together and sacrificing themselves depending on how the race evolves.
Look out for Yves Lampaert, Zdeněk Štybar, and Kasper Asgreen to all ride a very aggressive race, in an attempt to isolate Van Aert and Van der Poel and force them to use up energy chasing them, while their two fast finishers Davide Ballerini and Florian Sénéchal are likely to hold back and follow wheels if they can.
Trek-Segafredo’s underrated duo hoping to pull of another victory
For all of Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s credentials, and for all of Van Aert and Van der Poel’s individual superiority, the most successful team so far this spring has actually been Trek-Segafredo.
Things got off to a great start when Mads Pedersen outsprinted the field to win Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne during opening weekend, and on Saturday Jasper Stuyven triumphed at Milan-San Remo.
Since the beginning of last season, these two riders in particular have formed a deadly partnership that has often gone under the radar to deliver big results.
In fact, with Stuyven having won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad at the start of that year, and Pedersen claiming Ghent-Wevelgem post-lockdown, they have been among the most prolific teams over the last 13 months, and have even won more WorldTour Classics in that time than Deceuninck-Quick-Step.
With all eyes expected to be on Van Aert and Van der Poel, and Deceuninck-Quick-Step obliged to take control on their home roads, the Trek-Segafredo duo might just be able to sneak under the radar again and claim yet another major victory.
Pidcock looks already looks poised to win a major Classic
One of the less remarked upon stories of the spring so far is how Tom Pidcock has taken to the pro peloton like a duck to water.
We’ve been hyping the Yorkshireman up for years, and all the promise he has shown at the junior levels looks set to be fulfilled as he establishes himself as another of the bright new talents sweeping the pro peloton.
He began his first season for Ineos Grenadiers by making impressive attacks at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and sprinting for third-place at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, then mixed it up with the world’s best to finish fifth at a very hard Strade Bianche before proving himself capable on longer races by being one of the first over the Poggio at Milan-San Remo.
In short, the 21-year-old already looks capable of winning a Classic, and is among the top favourites to triumph on Friday.
Can the old guard still compete?
In the space of just two years, it’s become doubtful whether many of the same riders who were the top favourites for the last edition of E3 Saxo Bank Classic in 2019 are still capable of competing with the new generation.
Zdeněk Štybar (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r Citroën) finished first and third in the select group that made it to the finish that day, but since then have only claimed a total two victories between them.
Other cobbled specialists who we’re used to including in previews for the Classics have endured a similarly hard time of late. Age appears to be taking its toll on past champions Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal) and Niki Terpstra (Total Direct Energie), while the way Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) was dropped at Milan-San Remo suggests he may also have passed his best.
Aged 32 and 30 respectively, Sep Vanmarcke (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Oliver Naesen (Ag2r Citroën) ought to be enjoying the peak years of their career, but both have also found wins hard to come by up against the new generation, with just three wins between them since the beginning of 2019.
Nevertheless, all of these riders are down to ride E3 Saxo Bank Classic, with most listed as either leaders or co-leaders. The tide may appear to be against them, but they’re not done competing for Classics victories yet.