Howdy all! Compressed blogging for these compressed times, or whatever they are. Certainly my work life says hi here, but I’ll leave it at that. And of course the cycling calendar... I mean, what is there to say? I dutifully rolled out of bed at the usual crack of absurdity, watched my favorite sporting event in the entire universe, and after a few minutes of post-race, flipped over to another feed to watch my favorite grand tour climb a major mountain stage. It was ... not normal. But whatever.
I’ll cover a bit of both races, but let’s start with de Ronde van Vlaanderen. My beloved Flanders was an easy pick to keep us engrossed, given the virtual cascade of classics talent, not to mention the increasing tendency of top riders from the Ardennes bucket to give it a go. About the only cross-offs for Flanders these days are the legitimate Tour de France hopefuls, and even those guys will probably show up a time or two before they hang up their wheels. So the startlist, plus the fall calendar spot — a reasonable facsimile of spring racing — added up to a day where you could expect great things. And presto!
Mathieu van der Poel’s narrowest of victories over his CX rival Wout Van Aert was the headliner of an exciting day. The two of them on a breakaway was more or less a dream scenario, reminiscent of the last decade’s best edition of Flanders, the 2010 two-up clash of titans. Let’s dive in.
How does this edition rank?
This is an intriguing question. On a superficial level, very high. I absofuckinglutely guarantee you that 20 years from now people in Belgium and the Netherlands will talk about this like an all-time edition. It was memorable because of the incredible star power in the leading break.
And not for nothing — when you have two names everyone is saying and thinking about, and they end up away on the front end of the race they (and a lot of us) care about above all else... with the World Champion, for a while anyway... I mean, it almost seems like a dream. Falling in sports-love with young talent is an international phenom among hard-core fans of every sport, and when there is this pair, locked in competition, rising through the ranks, arriving at the top level and then almost immediately blowing the doors off the old guys in their way... almost nothing we say feels like an exaggeration. It’s like we are watching two historic careers unfolding, both of which we are unusually invested in, and having them in direct conflict on this stage is just a gift from the cycling gods.
So for the narrative, for the star power, it doesn’t get any bigger. But the race itself was actually not that full of tension and drama. The escape of van der Poel and Van Aert was a three-act drama with Julian Alaphilippe in a starring role. It was the Rainbow Jersey who launched the attack at the top of the Koppenberg, bounding away from the big names and breaking up a compact peloton. Then Alaphilippe, cheeky as ever, forced the winning selection on the descent of the Steenbekdries (a/k/a the Stationsberg), when only van der Poel and Van Aert could follow the move, which solidified minutes later up the Taaienberg. And finally, his work done, Ala said goodbye to the pair and somersaulted himself onto the concrete in a moment of inattention that won’t be forgotten as long as people continue racing on the cobbles.
Shocking... but then what else happened? Not much. No changing fortunes apart from the Rainbow himself. No will-they/won’t-they chase — once the top two departed I don’t think anyone expected them to get reeled in, not even with several strong teams chasing. Nobody even got away on the final climbs for third place, not for long anyway (Naesen went on the Oude Kwaremont but didn’t get far). But for the two up front, this would have been the biggest bunch sprint with the fewest interesting moments since the course changed in 2012.
So, to recap: low marks for drama and tension. High marks for iconography and legends. Oh, and high marks for just being quality racing, from the bottom of the Kopp to the finish riders were in high gear, no games, no quarter given.
Wout vs. Mathieu
The latest chapter was just pure bliss. Nothing weird or upsetting happened. Unlike a week ago, the two seemed like the best of frenemies, pure rivals in both competition and class, working together seamlessly during the race and congratulating each other in the moments after (before they knew who won), erasing any negative taste from their Gent-Wevelgem dual-immolation.
It’s the feel-great story of the cycling season. Add in that they were separated by nothing at all, and that van der Poel’s win was mere circumstance... I mean, who is disappointed? Not even Van Aert, who might have won if he launched his sprint a moment sooner. The Belgian on the Dutch team has won so much that I doubt he feels much regret (based on what he’s said), even if this were the top target. He’s a Monument winner and a Tour de France stud already. And this after his horrific injury a year ago.
The Dutchman on the Belgian team gets the win which he frankly needed far more than his rival. Van der Poel’s season got rearranged as his Olympic dreams got kicked to next year and his spring goals flipped to the fall. He had little to show for his efforts on the road, even after half-assing his cross season to another world title. His BinckBank Tour win was a good sign that the old MvdP was coming back, the one who looked like one bit of luck away from crushing the entire Flemish spring season last year. The one who was ready to win Flanders.
For this most awful year, clinging to normalcy and joy in the most strained ways, for the cycling season with its tossed-salad schedule, for it all to end in the most intense clash between these era-defining riders, with nothing but greatness and positivity in the outcome... That’s a great chapter to insert into their story. Not sure how the writers will top it next time.
Who Else Can Celebrate?
- Alexander Kristoff. No, I am not just going in finish order congratulating everyone, but for Kristoff, to hang with the accelerations over the climbs was more proof of his constant quality, a mind-bending seven top-five finishes (one win) in eight years. If I were smarter I’d find a way to bet on him next time. I wouldn’t call this his greatest season overall, but staying strong and also banking a Tour stage win (plus a day in yellow) is nothing to sneeze at.
- Kasper Asgreen, second last year, added a disappointing 13th this time around, but he was in the final selection behind the two winners, which means it really wasn’t so bad, he just isn’t a sprinter. For a 25-year-old to have that record says a lot about how he’s coming along. This is a name for many years to come. Did I mention he’s a Quick Stepper?
- Xandro Meurisse, 15th and rolling in with the favorites group. Meurisse, 27, had a fine year for Wanty, winning the Vuelta a Murcia as his first major win outside Belgium, and his hanging in with the koplopers bodes well for his next job: helping van der Poel defend his title next spring (fingers crossed), as he switches over to Alpecin-Fenix.
- Anthony Turgis, just 26, barely missed the podium this time. I’d pegged him for more of a Paris-Roubaix specialist but he might just be here to stay for the whole Wout-Mathieu era. Cool! Also, yikes.
And About Ala
You’ve seen a million images of the World Champion going tumbling down to his Earthly domain, clipping the back of a camera moto that had slowed down and attempted to pull out of harm’s way. You’ve heard a few takes, maybe a few too many, possibly even my take which is that it was all just a moment of bad luck, Ala reaching for his radio at the wrong moment. The motos were innocent of doing anything more than they had been told to do — pull over and let the lead pack through. The race organizers were innocent of any claim of bad judgment — this is standard procedure. Van Aert and van der Poel were just behind the moto and pulled out away from the slipstream in time. Ala... just didn’t, because he took a hand off the bars at the wrong time.
The moto driver is something of a media story. His name is Eddy Lissens, and he’s driven around the Ronde van Vlaanderen 20 times. His role in this mishap caused him tremendous grief, and he says he couldn’t sleep last night, mortified in having played any role in the outcome. He canceled his plan to drive in Driedaagse De Panne and said he’d think about quitting for good, although several riders and managers (not named Patrick Lefevre) said he should come back and drive again. Alaphilippe sent him a photo from the hospital, seemingly exonerating Lissens. It was just one of those things.
Anyway, it shouldn’t be overlooked in all of this drama that Alaphilippe was fantastic in the race. It was his first appearance in the race, on any level I think. As a puncheur with a sprint, he’s always been in the Basque Country or Catalunya while the cobbled classics are underway. And yet it was he, riding with the rainbow jersey, exhibiting the same panache he showed in the maillot jaune last summer, the new guy launching the attacks that defined the race. I’m not his hugest fan but boy do I respect him, in particular his aggressive spirit. He’s a perfect Lefevre rider. He fights.
And Then There’s the Giro d’Italia
I tried to do a stage-by-stage preview but kind of lost steam when it looked like the Giro had little chance of making it to Milan with a few CoVid positives threatening to multiply and devastate the race. Not sure that will happen now, but then there’s the weather, which had always hung over this race as the peloton heads in the direction of the Stelvio in late October. Now, the cycling gods are kind: the forecast in Bassano del Grappa calls for two days of rain and three days of sun this week. The latter are the three days in the high mountains. The rainy days (in the valley) seem like minor showers, not major storms that could snow out the race, sun or no. It actually looks for now like the Giro will make it to Milan having completed all of its stages.
Which gets us back to ... who will win? Everyone can read the standings and say that Wilco Kelderman is creeping up on Joao Almeida in an ominous way, with two strong teammates in Jai Hindley and Sam Oomen at his disposal. Almeida, in his first-ever grand tour, seems like a good bet to crack in the third week, or so goes pretty much all of the conventional wisdom.
The reality is that there is so much time to be gained in these climbs that any of the top dozen riders have a chance, down to Jakob Fuglsang sitting there in 12th, five minutes down. If Kelderman, at 15”, should falter himself, then the two riders accompanying him to the Piancavallo summit Sunday are riders to look at. Sure, Hindley and Tao Geoghegan Hart are also third and fourth... too obvious? Not if you watched the only climbing stage. TGH won and Hindley was as good as the rest, even if his job was to boost Kelderman. Nobody else could hang with Almeida, so it’s hard to talk up their chances. But that could still change.
The problem is that Hart and Hindley both chunked the ITT over the weekend, especially Hindley. And there is still an ITT left. Kelderman was mere seconds behind Almeida on the time trial, so he can hang next Sunday. Of those two, if one is in pink, they’ll probably win. Anyone else? It depends on a million things that are going to change between now and then.
So kick back, this Giro is going into high gear. And it’ll be over well before the Vuelta gets to the Angliru.