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Cobbles Wrap: Parsing Out the Meaning Of Another Exciting Season

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105th Ronde van Vlaanderen - Tour of Flanders 2021 - Men’s Elite Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Rolling into Brabantse Pijl, there’s always a question about whether we are done with the Cobbled Classics. Flanders Classics, the umbrella organization responsible for the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem, the Omloop, Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Scheldeprijs, would have you believe that we have one event left to go in this mini-season... one that they manage. But a quick check of Dutch Wikipedia, a less biased source (if you trust Dutch people to make pronouncements about Flemish cycling), includes in this grouping a long list of demi-classics like Driedaagse West Vlaanderen, Le Samyn etc. ... and no Brabant Arrow. If you think of Le Samyn as a cobbled classic and still don’t have room for Brabantse Pijl, that is pretty damning. I’ve always lumped it in with the Ardennes season, or just left it hanging out there by itself, but just about any standard you set (besides Dutch Wikipedia) comes up with no clear answer. Is the startlist more Ardennes than Flanders? Not really, this year it looks like a bit more of the cobbles horses are coming back for another try, although the top two Ronde finishers are packing it in, while the next two are coming back for one last try. Does the winner’s list look more like Flanders or the Ardennes? It’s a curious mix of sprinters, climbers and rock-riders. Like I said, unless you want to just punt the question to Dutch Wikipedia, there is no clear answer.

For me, though, the Hell-sized hole in the calendar yesterday left the Brabant Arrow too cut off from Flanders to count, and I am ready to move on. So here we go with your Cobbled Classics Season Wrap.

CYCLING-FRA-TDF2019-FANS Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP via Getty Images

Paris-Roubaix Pre-Preview?

Maybe the Queen of the Classics didn’t come off on time, but we have a pretty good sense that Paris-Roubaix will return as planned in October, and probably be as good as ever. As mentioned before, the race is planned for the weekend following the World Championships which take place in Flanders, so riders will have an opportunity to approach the race by getting in some miles just north of the border beforehand. Or, heck, even swinging down to Wallers on a training day between Worlds events. October may be an odd date for the race, but it’s not like the riders will be parachuting in from Spain.

So with all that uncertainty, can we at least say we saw something that helps us figure out who the P-R favorites will be in the fall? The best predicters are form and past results. Form is unknowable, although we do at least have 2020 when riders from the spring set were tasked with peaking in the fall. That’s one lonely data point, but it’s better than zero. Additionally, we have a clear sense of who the best cobbles riders are right now in 2021, and some of them we know will be better or worse in France.

Obviously the list of “best cobbles riders 2021” is basically the top 40(ish) at De Ronde. This year the 40th placed rider, Marco Haller, finished alone at 2.24 behind Asgreen, four seconds behind four riders and nine seconds behind the peloton which encompassed riders 13-35. It’s all the big names, and anyone further back maybe has further to go before we contemplate them winning in Hell. If you peruse the results of Dwars, E3, Gent-Wevelgem... maybe I am missing a name or two, but it’s the same guys. I’m 98% sure that you will find the winner of the 2021 Paris-Roubaix somewhere in the Flanders top 40, with 2% held (optimistically) in reserve for Zdenek Stybar.

105th Ronde van Vlaanderen - Tour of Flanders 2021 - Men’s Elite Photo by Nico Vereecken - Pool/Getty Images

Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert will probably come in as big favorites, and I don’t want to just round up all the usual suspects based on past results (I haven’t forgotten you, Sep Vanmarcke and Nils Politt). I’ll just throw out a couple names who maybe got a bit more interesting to me in the last three weeks: Jasper Stuyven, Stefan Kung, Anthony Turgis, and Dylan van Baarle. And as for the Double? That’s not out of the question right now, as Asgreen, who has no real history in P-R, expects to compete in the fall.

Today in Mathieu vs Wout

We should do a daily ranking. If I didn’t have a day job, I could dedicate myself to some daily sleuthing as to each one’s training regimens and race plans (nothing more personal than that) and recalculate for the next day’s Mathieu vs. Wout news cycle.

OK, I almost hesitate to joke about this, because the actual news cycles maybe aren’t that far off, or at least have some potential to reach such depressing levels. That said, we just passed through peak Mathieu vs. Wout Season, and we certainly had an interesting edition. So a roundup and summary is clearly warranted.

105th Ronde van Vlaanderen - Tour of Flanders 2021 - Men’s Elite Photo by Nico Vereecken - Pool/Getty Images

The reality is that they just aren’t on the same plan, so it becomes a bit hard to compare the results in an apples-to-apples fashion. Van Aert seems to have come into the season on a slower track, with other goals in mind besides a reprise of last fall, while van der Poel was just full gas from Cross worlds until now. That said, it was clear that van der Poel was losing steam from his rip-roaring March campaign in Italy, while Van Aert was gaining it, but maybe not fast enough. In the end, neither timed it right for Flanders, although van der Poel very nearly gutted out a monumental victory anyway. Which is completely ridiculous.

We did witness another chapter unfold in their place in the peloton. I am sure if we look back to last fall, we were expecting the pair to be among the top contenders, but as of this spring they were more like mortal locks. And the entire peloton took notice. I suspect their days of racing freely and easily are over and they will always enter the spring classics with heavy pressure on their shoulders.

What is interesting about their presence now is reflected in how race dynamics typically work in the classics, where we get attacks solo or in small groups in the final stages of the race and the peloton is put on its heels as each rider in it tries to calculate the pros and cons of working to close the gap. Sometimes a group cohesion will emerge to propel the chase, but it’s quite rare for one rider to power the pursuit. Basically, nobody wants to tow anyone else unless they are sure they can win, and towing a dozen strong riders usually means you can’t win. Even if you are the fastest sprinter in theory, you won’t be by the time the gap is closed.

But van der Poel and Van Aert are different in that, up til now, it seems like they always believe they can win. And why not? Apart from losing to each other, they are both terrific sprinters with no reason to fear the final 200 meters. More times than I can count, one or the other has been seen powering the first, second or third group, a refreshingly aggressive approach for us fans and a nerve-wracking one for their directeurs sportif. And now, please excuse me while I rewatch the final 10km of 2019 Amstel Gold for the 15th time. [I’m not kidding.]

But after the last couple weeks, I do wonder if that sort of GFIN style will get reined in a bit and the two stars will start calculating their odds like normal cycling superstars, i.e. cautiously. Is this possible? Do they have it in their blood? Can either one of the conjugate the verb “triangulate”? Maybe. Like Cancellara in the 2011 edition of Paris-Roubaix, unless you are prepared to go even sooner than your rivals expect, a slope that gets more slippery with every attack, then at some point the negative tactics will erode your aggression.

Signs of the Next Guy?

One of the more remarkable takeaways from the Classics is the near-total lack of young kids breaking through and serving notice that they will be part of the next wave to wash over the sport. The season’s crowning achievement was turned in by a guy who showed us two years ago, at age 24, that he was well on his way, and now has a Ronde van Vlaanderen trophy on his case back home in Jutland. So aren’t we entitled to another kid making waves now that grow to tsunami proportions in a couple years?

Apparently the Cycling Gods not only do not love us that much, but are downright concerned that we have become hopelessly spoiled. They’ve given us a few glimpses of future performance, but not enough for us to get ahead of ourselves. Let’s run through a few names and what you can derive from their early returns on the Cobbles, cribbing from my old young guns column.

CYCLING RONDE VAN VLAANDEREN RACE 2021 Photo by DAVID STOCKMAN/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

The most obvious name is Tom Pidcock, who was third at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, fifth at Strade Bianche, and otherwise visible on the cobbles. In E3 and Dwars and De Ronde he was in one of the trailing pelotons, and not more than an occasional person of interest, although he might have been a contender for Dwars if his teammate weren’t on a solo break? Let’s give him some decent marks but that’s all. Oh, and his other teammate Ethan Hayter was up there too in Dwars, after going on a long break with, among others, the uber-talented Florian Vermeersch. Hayter was punchy and aggressive, and definitely looks like a keeper for these events.

Beyond the INEOS set, Mikkel Bjerg was 33rd at E3; Johan Jacobs was 23rd. Alexander Konychev was 24th at Driedaagse, where Jasper Philipsen got second (and then went on to win the Scheldeprijs). Vermeersch, who is also a local politician at age 22, finished 16th in E3 as his only result, along with his notable teamwork. That is about it. I suppose you can say that INEOS laid down a marker for next year, where they will be able to threaten the top teams and riders both individually and in depth, but the rest is probably too murky to draw conclusions from.

109th Scheldeprijs 2021 - Men’s Elite Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images

A Final Teams Ranking

  1. Do I even have to say it?
  2. Alpecin Fenix. I wish my kids were more into cycling. If they were, I could point to these guys as an example of how having some exalted title like “World Tour team” means less than simply knowing who you are. We might not see much of them for a while, but right now their eight wins trail only four very well-funded teams. They also had multiple riders in position to help van der Poel, the thing we were wondering if they could do. Sure, they only won the two races we could easily forget, but two wins plus reasonable support for their dominant leader, who was inches from the biggest win, that’s a nice haul.
  3. INEOS. Not that they had a meaningful impact on the main event, but at least they bossed one race.
  4. Jumbo-Visma. You could argue flipping them and INEOS I guess, the rationale is the same, that at least on one occasion they got everything correct. Van Hooydonck had a good run in the support role for Wout, especially in winning G-W.
  5. AG2R. A few notable results including Van Avermaet’s Ronde podium, but I’m going here more on the basis of their consistency across the roster and the races.
  6. Bahrain Victorious. The trio of Haller, Haussler and Colbrelli hung around almost every race. Credit for exceeding expectations.
  7. Trek. Way to soldier on! Surely it makes sense to have one team on here who overcame COVID in the middle of the cobbles season. Stuyven is a beast.
  8. UAE. Trentin’s third at Wevelgem was their top result but they had a lot of riders finish and had people in the mix every day.
CYCLING RONDE VAN VLAANDEREN RACE 2021 Photo by DIRK WAEM/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images
CYCLING RONDE VAN VLAANDEREN RACE 2021 Photo by DIRK WAEM/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images