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Ardennes Week Odds and Ends

And a quick interview with the star of Amstel Gold

55th Amstel Gold Race 2021 - Men’s Elite Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Welcome to Ardennes Week! It’s already been a pretty exciting one after yesterday’s Amstel Gold Race drama. The headlines are the wins by Wout Van Aert and Marianne Vos, both of Jumbo-Visma, the most prominent Dutch team in modern cycling. For years, fans of the men’s racing scene considered Amstel a sort of cursed affair for the hosts, after an 18-year drought for both riders and teams from the Netherlands. But that’s done now, after Mathieu van der Poel’s dramatic win in the last edition two years ago (thanks COVID). On the women’s side, Dutch riders had won plenty, as they often do in women’s cycling. Sunday marked a new high, though, with Vos, the Empress of Dutch cycling, taking her first win there, and with Jumbo hogging the accolades — Jumbo, the team formerly known as Rabobank, and before that Superconfex, Ti_Raleigh, and Kwantum back in its first season in 1984. Big day for the home fans.

Too bad, of course, that they weren’t by the roadside. They were thoroughly missed, as the AGR is as loud and raucous a crowd as you will find in the classics. Sure, people don’t all love the many circuits that define the race’s final 60km or so, but it definitely makes for enhanced roadside presence, creating a stadium effect at the Cauberg and the finish area. Next year, in Valkenberg...

55th Amstel Gold Race 2021 - Men’s Elite
Socially distanced salutations
Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Interview from the Winner’s Circle

Following the conclusion of the men’s Amstel Gold Race, the Podium Cafe caught up with the star of the day for a quick interview. Here is my exclusive chat with Wout Van Aert’s Tire.

Podium Cafe: Wout’s Tire, what a remarkable result today! Tell us how you managed it in the end.

Wout Van Aert’s Tire: Thanks! I’m so excited, this is such an honor for me. Our teamwork was very good today, with some of the other Jumbo Visma tires clearing the pavement for me, and with our mechanics giving me what I need in terms of pressure and proper mounting. I want to especially thank my Dura Ace front wheel, we’ve really been working well together all spring.

Podium Cafe: So how did you beat Tom Pidcock’s tire?

Wout Van Aert’s Tire: Well, I knew he was going to be tough in a sprint, but I think I had a bit more pressure in me for the final meters. You could see in the breakaway that he was good but maybe missing that little extra pound or two you need to extend that extra millimeter over the line. Not like on Wednesday when I knew he was really in top form. So I felt comfortable with my chances, even though Tom’s Tire really did a fantastic sprint and made it super close.

Podium Cafe: This must be especially satisfying for you. I know you’ve had some big wins but in terms of close wins where you have been able to put that last millimeter over the line, does this make up for the Tour of Flanders last October?

Wout Van Aert’s Tire: Eh, well, that’s a difficult question. Obviously that was a big disappointment for me, and losing to Mathieu van der Poel’s Tire is always a bit hard for me to accept because we have faced each other so many times and we are always competing for the same objectives. But it’s OK, I know I will have more chances to win there and to compete with Mathieu’s Tire, so for now I am just happy I could win here and deliver for my team at the biggest race in the Netherlands.

Podium Cafe: You’ve been very outspoken about the use of inner tubes in cycling. Now that tubeless technology has been accepted so broadly, do you feel differently running over these surfaces, especially over the past couple weeks in Belgium?

Wout Van Aert’s Tire: Ha! You really want to get me in hot water, don’t you? Look, I’ve said it many times, I can appreciate the more traditional tires wanting the comfort of an inner tube, and I know the science is a bit unclear still on how much of an advantage I have over them. But for me, it just feels more free and lets me take charge more so I can do what I did today. I am proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish on my own, so I’d like to continue working in this way.

Podium Cafe: Thanks Wout’s Tire, and again, congratulations on the big win.

Wout Van Aert’s Tire: Thanks.

So that’s it, folks. The big star of Sunday’s race giving an exclusive look into the finale. Next week we hope to catch up to Tom Pidcock’s Tire to see if he has any differing views on how it went down in Valkenburg.

Wout Van Aert’s Tire for the win!

The Shiniest Rising Star?

The rise of Mathieu and Wout has been a tale of two youngsters taking over the classics, from the Strade Bianche to Amstel Gold. Both of them started making waves on the road in 2018 at the age of 23, and by age 24 they were winning major classic races. Now both 26 (they were born about a month apart), they have dominated the sport to some degree.

So what do we do with the fact that Tom Pidcock just entered the discussion, at... age 21?

Pidcock, another arrival from the Cross world (where his most recent season included a victory over van der Poel), got off to a precocious start in his road debut season with INEOS, taking third in KBK and fifth in Strade Bianche, before showing his face in interesting places at Milano Sanremo and E3. The early verdict was that he showed promise for such a young guy. But nobody is talking about the distant future anymore. Pidcock, who profiles as something of a cobbles/climbing crossover talent, won Brabantse Pijl and came within an impossibly small gap of taking the Amstel Gold Race and scoring a massive first for British cycling. La Fleche is a different type of race, and Liege is longer and harder with a startlist befitting the race’s enormous stature, so Pidcock’s run might be over for now.

55th Amstel Gold Race 2021 - Men’s Elite Photo by Nico Vereecken - Pool/Getty Images

But still, the awesomeness of him doing this at a significantly younger age than Van Aert and van der Poel cannot be overstated. At 21, Philippe Gilbert was garnering a nice second place in Tro Bro Leon. At 21, Alejandro Valverde was nabbing a national road race title... in U23. Giuseppe Saronni took second in Fleche Wallonne in 1977, at age 20. Peter Sagan second at Gent-Wevelgem at age 22. Edvald Boasson Hagen taking G-W at the same age. 22-year-old Mads Pedersen taking second in Flanders. Rik Van Steenbergen winning Flanders at 19.

And of course Marc Hirschi winning La Fleche last year, also at age 21. And then getting on the Liege podium. So there are benchmarks out there. And they’re mostly pretty incredible.

So what is Pidcock’s future? If I knew that, I’d get friendly with the bookies on the corners in Harelbeke or Ans. But it’s safe to say that we have much more to look for in the classics than the riders who showed themselves in the last couple years — Matti, Wout, Marc, etc. Tadej Pogacar (still 22) will be heard from in the classics, as well as at the Tour again. Some of the other youngsters we have been talking about will probably join Pidcock in this discussion. But Pidcock’s rise might be as shocking as any, given his early and conspicuous arrival.

Teams Competition

Just a couple quick notes, I’m not ready to launch an Ardennes power poll, but if I did, I’d definitely have Jumbo and INEOS at the top. Sure, the results are easy to point to, but INEOS had a major impact at the front end of the race, and Van Aert could count on the long shadow of Primoz Roglic to keep the pressure off himself Sunday. Both of those teams have some nice hardware from this spring, INEOS having also taken Dwars thanks to Dylan van Baarle, so the battle for overall April Supremacy might be a complicated one as this week unfolds. Bora, Quick Step, UAE, Trek, Lotto, EF and Groupama are all on my list of teams that may have something to say by next weekend. And Valverde I guess. Sigh.