Cycling’s great entertainers continue to rewrite the rules of racing
A cursory glance at the results, showing two sprint finishes out of three, might give the impression that this year’s Opening Weekend was a bit of a damp squib. But in reality that was far from the case, as three of the sport’s great entertainers brought their crowd-pleasing A-games to the races.
At Omloop Het Nieuwsblad it was Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx), the former making his (ultimately unsuccessful) solo move 32km from the finish, and the latter winning with an attack on the Bosberg, having already with several earlier attacks and accelerations to help split the race into pieces.
Not wishing to be upstaged, Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) went from even further out, bursting out of the peloton a whole 80km, and — whether by coincidence or not — just as live coverage of the race began. His attack went the way of Alaphilippe’s rather than Van der Breggen’s, but it was nevertheless an awesome display of strength that shaped the entire way Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne was raced.
Perhaps more than other riders, these three have helped rewrite the rules of how bike races can be won, helping to bring into fashion an attacking style of riding. That they can make attacks so far from the finish, and for those attacks to be considered genuinely threatening rather than hopeless kamikaze moves destined to end in failure, shows just how much racing has changed in recent years — and is all the better for it.
A weird men’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad ends in a sprint
With its tougher parcours and multiple tough bergs during the finale, it’s not often that Omloop Het Nieuwsblad ends in a bigger bunch finish than Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, but that was the case this year as a group consisting over 40 riders contested the sprint.
In fact, it’s been 12 years since Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last finished in a large group sprint, and even in that the group that contested the finish was about half the size.
Even the great Muur van Geraardsbergen was unable to force a selection, with no riders managing to open up a significant enough lead over its summit and the peloton remaining more or less intact.
So what happened to cause such an unusual outcome? The lack of strong winds, which often plays a part in causing selections, might have played a part. And perhaps the absence of elite riders like Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), plus the fact that Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) had tired himself out by attacking early, meant the riders were all too evenly matched for selections to occur.
Another possible explanation is that the race ended in a bunch sprint simply because Deceuninck-Quick-Step wanted it to. Once Alaphilippe had been caught, they calculated that sprinter Davide Ballerini was their best option for victory, and with big engines like Kasper Asgreen, Yves Lampaert, Florian Sénéchal, and Alaphilippe to put to work at the front of the peloton, they had the firepower to subdue any potential attacks made by their rivals.
The tactic worked, as Ballerini sprinted to what was first ever classic victory. If the team continues to back him, we could see more classics surprisingly end in bunch sprints this spring.
SD Worx boss the women’s Het Nieuwsblad
They might have a new name and new sponsors, but SD Worx began the 2021 season in much the same way as they have ridden in the last few years — with a dominant performance that saw them claim victory.
The team (formerly known as Boels-Dolmans) flexed their muscles early on at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, setting a fierce pace even on the flat roads in between the climbs, with world champion Anna van der Breggen doing much of the work.
Their efforts had a definitive effect on the race, as they dropped and eliminated out of contention rivals including Lizzie Deignan, Ellen van Dijk (both Trek-Segafredo) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), no less, who were all caught napping the wrong side of a split.
They then proceed to work over riders who remained in contention with attacks off the front of the group, first from new signing Demi Vollering, then Van der Breggen. The latter’s proved to be successful, and before long the others were already fighting each other with second-place in mind, having given any chance of bringing the Dutchwoman back.
It was textbook stuff from SD Worx, and an early indication that new signings like Vollering have already integrated seamlessly into the team. While they’re unlikely to take Van Vleuten out of contention with such ease again this spring, this performance suggests they will win plenty of classics over the coming campaign.
Pedersen’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne win rescues weekend for Trek-Segafredo
Saturday was not a good day either the men’s or the women’s Trek-Segafredo teams. Despite being expected to be one of the major players in the men’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, all three of their leaders (Mads Pedersen, Jasper Stuyven, and Edward Theuns) failed to make the selection, with Alex Kirsch ending as their highest finisher way down in 63rd.
Big things were also expected of the women’s line-up, but they too came up well short as both Lizzie Deignan and Ellen van Dijk were caught out by a surprise split in the peloton. Elisa Longo Borghini had a typically spirited attempt at salvaging the race for them, putting in several attacks, but failed to get away and only managed to sprint for 10th place.
When Stuyven was their only rider to make the selection at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne the following day, it looked as though the team’s whole weekend was to be a write-off. However, their riders did not give up, and Mads Pedersen was part of a group that eventually worked its way back up into the lead group. Once there, Stuyven provided him a fantastic lead-out, and the Dane sprinted to what was a comprehensive victory.
Following his wins at Gent-Wevelgem last year at the World Championships in 2019, the speed of Pedersen’s finishing kick is becoming more and more apparent. If this strong Trek-Segafredo line-up can help place him in the leading group in the upcoming classics, we may see him sprinting to even more Classics victories this spring.
Young British talents catch the eye
This weekend was hyped as Tom Pidcock’s first Classics outing as a pro in the elite peloton, and the 21-year-old did not disappoint. He was one of the most active riders at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, looking especially strong in one attack that saw him bridge up to a group after missing a split, and then showed off his quick sprint the day after to finish third at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
Less anticipated but equally impressive was 21-year-old Jake Stewart’s second-place finish at Het Nieuwsblad. He’d already impressed this month with a couple of top tens and fourth overall at Etoile des Besseges, but we weren’t prepared for just how good he’d be in the season’s opening classic. Simply remaining in the front group for the finish was impressive enough in and of itself, but having the legs to sprint for second suggested Stewart could be a star in the making.
Whereas Stewart managed to surprisingly upstage his Groupama-FDJ leader Arnaud Démare, who was dropped out of contention at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Pidcock formed part of an Ineos Grenadiers line-up that worked well together and looks better than it has done for years.
Gianni Moscon reminded everyone of why he was so talked up a few years ago by being the first rider over the top of the Muur at Omloop, while Jhonatan Narváez (who must be the first ever Ecuadorian cobbled Classics contender) was the only man to follow Van der Poel’s attack at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. With his team-mates in this kind of form, 2021 might not be too soon for Pidcock to already win a Classic.