Just going to tack on a bit of verbiage in the form of a mini victory lap for me here. WHAT A RACE! The course was brilliant, the weather made things interesting (but not too interesting), and the teams and riders slugged it out in classic— and I do mean classic — fashion. In the end, Deceuninck Quick Step put on a master class of “our four guys against your isolated one,” a tactic greatly enhanced by the obvious strength of Zdenek Stybar (and helped later with Florian Senechal).
But the story of the day was an absolutely heroic effort by the Danish Champion, Kasper Asgreen, who rode alone for some 40km of the final 50, utterly torturing the achtervolgers behind him, as both Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel found themselves having to do all the heavy lifting to bring back the elusive Dane. Why AG2R, with Naesen and Van Avermaet on hand, did so little (along with the rest) to help reel in Asgreen, I can’t say for sure, although the two young stars cast such a long shadow that they probably won’t get much help in reforming a finale that they can just dominate. So AG2R and the rest sat in. And Asgreen pedaled on. Up to a minute, then down to eight seconds, then back out again, as Van Aert fell back and van der Poel agonizingly chased on, until the capture happened at last.
Then things settled into the usual pattern with various people taking turns on the front, waiting for DQS — massed for battle — to do something. A Stybar launch made some sense, with Senechal the sprinter in waiting. Surely Asgreen, having buried himself so deep for so long, was just going to play helper for the last 10km? Nope. Not only was he the rider most capable of surprising the bunch with another launch, but he actually still had a few matches left to burn. Once he got away, you could feel the disgust emanating from van der Poel as he alone tried to respond, while being marked out of existence. A minute or so later it was clear that Asgreen was gone for good.
DQS just dominated this race, as great teams do, and as they in particular seem to do more years than not. They might not have had the shiniest ace to play, but they had all the rest of the face cards and executed their strategy masterfully. None of this is a huge surprise. I was a little taken aback at how much they showed themselves, more than a week before Flanders, but why not? If you have that much talent, you can afford to broadcast your strategy to the world and dare them to do something about it. I’m sure rival DSs knew this was coming, and know it’s coming again. The lineup will change a bit, but the process should look about the same.
This wasn’t the main event, but it could be a serious foreshadowing. And if it is, there are a lot of teams who should be looking themselves in the mirror. Where were EF, Trek, Lotto? INEOS were on their back heels. Bora seem like maybe they got stuck at Customs or something. There is a lot more work to be done.
- Kasper Asgreen, DQS
- Florian Senechal, DQS, at 32”
- Mathieu van der Poel, Alpecin, s.t.
- Oliver Naesen, AG2R, s.t.
- Zdenek Stybar, DQS, s.t.
- Greg Van Avermaet, AG2R, s.t.
- Dylan van Baarle, INEOS, s.t.
I’m going to confess, the title of this article is what it is, but I’m probably not in a great position to judge “best race” when my memory is as selective as it’s become. But I have a slight obsession with the E3 Binck-Saxo-Prijs Harelbeke, which is still the best Ronde van Vlaanderen tuneup in the business, and which is still locally-run through its local organization and feels more connected to the pubs of Harelbeke than to the UCI. So there, I am biased.
But most editions of E3 are pretty fun, with late attacks sorting out the favorites — riders from the top drawer of cobbled classic cycling — from the challengers. Saying one edition is better than another is a bit hard to back up. If I were a heretic, I would at least be willing to say that 2012’s bunch finish was subpar, except that it was Tom Boonen’s record-setting fifth win, as well as his last, and launched his historic quadruple beatdown ending at Paris-Roubaix. So no, I am not even going to criticize the one bunch finish in recent memory.
I do have a special fondness for the 2010 edition, one I attended in person, my first such foray into standing by the side of a Belgian road during a bike race. Emotions aside, though, it was an absolutely cracking edition, with a legendary conclusion featuring Cancellara, Boonen and Flecha, full of power and nuance, and coming on the heels of some classic attacking in the hills as well. The peloton was a nice mix of current and budding stars — Pozzato, Langeveld, Boom, Van Avermaet, Devolder, Ballan, etc. — and the top three were clearly the cream of the crop that day. Just checked all the boxes.
From there, the race saw Gent-Wevelgem butting up against it before dropping back to Friday, itself a welcomed thing given how much we all love an excuse to lengthen the weekend. They have tinkered with the route any number of times. Nowadays they take a ceremonial spin out by Geraardsbergen during the primo piatto phase of the race, but it remains a bizarro cloverleaf of a route that is carefully curated to tap out the rhythms of the Ronde and its assault on the Flemish Ardennes.
The E3, as always, doesn’t try to mimic de Ronde too closely; it’s its own race, it will always (I hope) end with a long-ish flat run back to Harelbeke, and it will always (I hope) go up the Korte Keer instead of the Koppenberg, which I can wait another nine days for. Its resemblance comes in the blocks of climbs — the pre-Ronse trio (La Houppe, Kanarieberg, Oude Kruisberg), the post-Ronse Hotonde-Knokteberg, the Berg ter Stene-Boigneberg-Eikenberg trio... all good stuff. The total of 17 climbs is balanced, hard but not crazy, a long Flanders training day and a fine event on its own.
Everyone is loaded up to win too. The World Tour inclusion from several years ago now ensured that teams would bring their top team, and that’s about 90% true. A few flashy Flanders guys aren’t here yet, like Alaphilippe, but the bulk of them and their support riders are. Some of the drama should be:
- Van Aert vs van der Poel — Just a question as to whether they unleash their full power, or hold some cards back. My guess is that there is no reason to be cagey, they both know each other well and E3 doesn’t coincide with the Ronde finale, where the key moves happen somewhere in the vicinity of the Oude Kwaremont. So I’d look for them to beat each other up all day, probably to the line.
- Should the Bigs not ditch the field, can a sprint happen? I know I just got done calling the bunch sprint the only bad outcome here, basically, but it will be very interesting to see if the teams whose best chances lie in the final km can do anything to control the race. UAE are the most obvious example, featuring Trentin, Kristoff and Gaviria, but Team BikeExchange (Bling), Lotto (Degenkolb) and maybe Quick Step (Ballerini) could see their way clear to setting up a sprint.
- There’s a long line of top guys just below the Matti/Wout level who will be looking to throw the top guys off their game. Bettiol, Colbrelli, PIdcock, Benoot, Sep, Van Avermaet or Naesen, Lampaert, Gilbert... the list goes on and on. Isn’t there a point to be made here to knock the two stars off their game, if they can? At least it’d be advantageous to be aggressive and give themselves confidence.
- Finally, the team of the spring has been Trek Segafredo, so far. They have Stuyven and Pedersen on hand, with the full support list. Will they take the initiative, or try leaving it to Alpecin and Jumbo to sort things out?
This should be a spectacular race and I had better post this before it begins. My pick to win? I think van der Poel is too ruthless and certainly hungry enough, and am gonna trust his finishing kick over Wout’s... for now. Enjoy!