So that’s why we watch this sport.
If you had told me that Flanders would finish Bettiol-Asgreen-Kristoff six weeks — no, six hours ago, I’d have said you were mad. That, however, is exactly what happened as the Italian used the tried and tested method of attacking on the final run of the Oude Kwaremont before what he would describe as the longest fourteen kilometres of his life into Oudenaarde.
This was prefaced by an active day for his team members, with the pink and blue seen in a few earlier, promising yet failed, moves. Promising yet failed was the order of the day, as groups that might have survived in classics earlier in the season all got reeled back, such as the huge group that got clear over the Muur including Van der Poel, Van Aert, Jungels and many other favourites. It wasn’t to be though and until the final throes of the race there would be a somewhat classical and fascinating story of the peloton getting whittled down by attrition as small groups slingshot off the front to chance their arm, the most dangerous-looking consisting of Bettiol team-mate Sep Vanmarcke (a way of describing him I would never have expected to use), perennial Flanders candidate Dylan van Baarle, Kasper Asgreen and (for a time) too-big-for-this Stijn Vandenbergh. These brave riders were caught on the Kwaremont as the race came to its natural make-or-break point.
The beauty of this was that there was a twenty-strong group and all of them had a chance of winning. Race favourite Stybar had already been dropped as Deceuninck looked shaky. Valverde was in the picture, Van Avermaet looked strong, and there was one thing to do if winning was your goal — go for it.
Bettiol did, crossing the Kwaremont first and never looking back as the bigs sorted out who was the strongest. Jungels, Quickstep’s other reliable this term, also struggled as Sagan muscled his way to the front, clearly off-colour yet now absolutely determined. Sebastian Langeveld was there, doing his best to slow down as the pack settled in twenty seconds behind Bettiol for the chase home.
I say chase. What actually followed was a textbook exhibition of how to win a bike race from Bettiol, and a textbook exhibition of how to lose one from those behind. A slight tailwind made things easier for the EF rider but the seventeen men behind him were far more willing to lose through inaction than lose through action. Greg Van Avermaet, who I myself have said worked too hard in other races, clearly was fed up of doing so and only made token pulls. Lotto-Soudal, equipped as they were with Jens Keukeleire and Tiesj Benoot, did nothing as they correctly assumed they would not win a closing sprint. Quickstep, after their unbelievable classics season up to last Sunday, had all their strength desert them — neo-pro Kasper Asgreen was legitimately their strongest rider, with Jungels unable to hold his wheel. None of the sprinters (and there were sprinters, take Alexander Kristoff and Michael Matthews) had team-mates, and nobody with team-mates could sprint.
This worked about about as well as you might expect for both Bettiol and the peloton as his advantage pretty much stuck at just under twenty seconds for the whole ride home. His ride at E3 means that he can’t quite be considered a shock winner (he’s on my VDS team and trust me, I’m not clever enough to pick someone out of the blue) but given that it is his first pro win, it is still a surprise, one that I think will be a pleasant one for most fans. Van Avermaet, Quickstep, Sagan and the rest will have to lick their wounds and wonder how they can renew their strength for Roubaix as all of them have been shown to be lacking something of a spark. The second cobbled monument only looks more and more open to a surprise victor as the assumed favourites all faltered in some way or another.
That is to say, apart from Mathieu van der Poel. After a hard crash in which he broke his steerer tube, he practically sprinted up the second passage of the Kwaremont on the opposite side of the road to the struggling back of the peloton in order to catch up. This hardly slowed him down — he looked like one of the strongest men left in the group by the race’s conclusion, sprinting to a fine fourth. He won’t ride Roubaix, but he’s left his mark on this cobbles season and he’ll be back.
All in all then, a Flanders that very much lived up to expectations in drama, if not in the result. I think Bettiol is a winner we can all feel pretty good about.