We had a reasonably fun opening to the full-on Cobbled Classics this weekend, with a chalky result in E3 and an historic change of the guard at Gent-Wevelgem. We definitely saw some fortunes rising and falling, and while some of the hopefuls are losing hope, we are nonetheless looking at a pretty beefy lineup for the Ronde van Vlaanderen next Sunday. Let’s hit a few stories and update the teams power poll.
Girmay’s Breakthrough Defies Odds
Assuming you have not literally been hanging out under a rock for the last 36 hours or so, you presumably know by now that Eritrean rider Biniam Girmay of Intermarché-Wanty Groupe won Gent-Wevelgem in somewhat surprising and clearly historic fashion Sunday. Girmay was one of the better riders in the world coming into the race, and showed the finishing kick which made him a dangerous rider to bring to the line, where he launched from a brutal 350 meters into a headwind to overcome Christophe Laporte of Jumbo-Visma, among others. Being the first citizen of Eritrea or any African nation to win here, and accomplishing one of the biggest wins in the history of African cycling, Girmay has certainly kicked his career off in grand style. With just one full season under his belt, the silver medalist in last year’s U23 Worlds is showing he already belongs with the elites of the sport. After the race, he was due to head home to Eritrea and celebrate his 22nd birthday with his family — and probably a few thousand of their closest friends. So much for a peaceful holiday.
Lots of stories out there talking about how Girmay’s precocious results disprove the idea that the Cobbled Classics demand a level of experience. At just 21 and greeting the venerable old stones for the first time, they report, maybe it’s time to rethink the idea that bouncing around on cobbles is strictly for the older riders. If we think Girmay should not have been in contention in either the E3 Saxo Bank Classic, where he took fifth, or Gent-Wevelgem, where he showed ‘em all, then maybe we are wrong about the technical challenges these races provide?
Some articles I saw even suggested that he had never ridden the cobbles before E3, like not even in training? This is demonstrably untrue, since he finished the U23 Paris-Roubaix in 2019 and the elite Scheldeprijs in 2020. Did last year’s World Championships include some cobbles too? I can’t recall, but he competed there too. So at a minimum, he’s at least as familiar as my brother and I were after riding the cyclotourist Ronde van Vlaanderen and some Paris-Roubaix recon back in 2010. Probably even more familiar than that. So portraying him as having parachuted in from the world of endless smooth tarmac is a bit overblown, and that’s even before we examine what the roads were like for him growing up. The kid can ride the cobbles because he’s tried them before, and because he’s a cyclist who has been put through some version of the usual absurd challenges that every rider faces coming into this sport.
The other cold water I would like to throw at some of the reporting on Girmay is that his Gent-Wevelgem win means he should ride the Tour of Flanders, because he has the hot hand and it translates over to the Big Show. Well... yes and no. Similar logic is being thrown around about Tadej Pogačar’s ambitions for Sunday — class is class, whether we are talking about established greatness or a hot hand, and if Gent-Wevelgem (or Strade Bianche) is your cuppa then you can figure out Flanders. But there are some major differences between the big event and the warmups.
First, you can toss out Gent-Wevelgem as a warmup for de Ronde at all. It lacks most of the punchy climbing efforts apart from the Kemmelberg, and routinely ends in a sprint. Sure, it looks similar and any race in the sprint in Belgium is going to see Belgian-style (re: attacking) racing. But since the turn of the century (and before as well), the honor roll has included plenty of riders, particularly sprinters, who barely, if ever, sniffed the front of de Ronde — Paolini, Eisel, Boasson Hagen, Freire, Burghardt, and Mattan, for example. So winning Gent-Wevelgem is great, and makes you a person of some interest, but it isn’t quite a sign that you’ve made it into the upper echelon of Flanders favorites.
The other problem — for Girmay (if he were to ride De Ronde, which he isn’t) and for Pogačar too — is that the length and rhythms of Flanders aren’t like G-W or E3 or Dwars either. You hear from Flanders vets all the time, there are a zillion left and right turns where the peloton slows and accelerates again. Are there fewer of them now? The finale from the Oude Kwaremont to the Paterberg is pretty flowy compared to the old route, but there are still enough to put a rider’s body through the meat grinder. Here is a fairly innocuous stretch that occurs about 30-40km into the race. One little sojourn through some lovely Flemish villages takes in something of the order of 15 turns.
Even in the quieter parts of the race, these turns start to add up. Then the climbs and the cobbles take their pound of flesh too. Finally, even if the warm-up races have some number of the same ingredients, in Flanders you just have so much more of them. This year’s race runs for 272km, about 10k longer than usual, and a cool 68km longer than E3. It’s not the same. Can riders win it on their first try? Sure, Rik Van Steenbergen did it, so of course it can be done. You just have to be the new Rik Van Steenbergen.
I exaggerate, but my point is, let’s give this kid a moment. He may very well be the next big Cobbles prodigy, providing his team doesn’t have other bigger plans for him. [As if.] But the way you launch a prodigy into the major events for him to conquer is to carefully construct a program around those events, not to tell him at the last second to cancel his vacation and just leap into them. He may turn out to be every bit as good as the excitable headlines and tweets are claiming, and cycling — long lacking in African participation — will be better for it. But there are reasonable and unreasonable expectations, and then there are right and wrong ways of doing things. Thinking this kid can win Flanders right now, and then telling him to go do it, none of that sounds like a fair plan.
Now, if you want to talk Flanders 2023? Look out.
Sagan goes home
Just as one door seemed to have been kicked open, another may have closed. Peter Sagan, in his first season riding for DirectEnergies, has decamped from Flanders to undergo tests which may help him better understand his missing form. Sagan, who has faced two separate bouts of COVID including one in January, has had nothing to show for his efforts this spring, apart from making it into the final sprint at Milano-Torino on March 16. Since then, his Milan-Sanremo dreams died at the foot of the Cipressa, having suffered a mechanical that kept him out of the heavy action, and he could do little in E3, where he wheeled in 11 minutes in arrears.
At 33, it’s tempting to write off Sagan’s Flanders prospects, but as with Girmay, it’s probably best to slow that take down too. Sagan found versions of his old self just last year, which included a victory in the Giro d’Italia points competition (plus a stage win), and a few other results that would suggest he’s still one of the world’s better cyclists. He’s a full five (!) years younger than Greg Van Avermaet, last seen on the Flanders podium, and finished in the second group that included Lampaert, Kristoff, and some other dudes you wouldn’t dismiss. I wouldn’t bet the house on him winning again, but I’m definitely not writing his career obituary anytime soon either.
Teams Power Poll 2.0
1. Jumbo Visma ↔
Results: First and second in E3, second in G-W
Reviews? The final results only begin to tell the story of dominance by the Jumbos of the Peloton, who firmly controlled both the front pair — Van Aert and Laporte duetting home together — and the chase group, which couldn’t get organized with Tiesj Benoot and Mike Teunissen hanging around.
Which brings me to an important point: do we miss the Wout-Matti dynamic now? More on van der Poel in a moment, but E3 was a grim reminder of what these races could look like if there weren’t someone of Van Aert’s equal to hold him in check. So for all the griping about the same two riders dominating so much, or alternatively, for marking each other out of the occasional race, let’s just appreciate that having vdP back opens up a lot more scenarios than another runaway Van Aert victory.
2. INEOS ↑
Results: Sixth and eighth in E3
Reviews? Missing from the Girmay hype was the arrival of Jhonatan Narvaez as another possible cobbles prodigy from another non-traditional cobbles country, Ecuador. Narvaez, at 26 a bit old to be called a prodigy perhaps, previously had just one DNF in E3 to show for his efforts on the stones (and starts in the smaller events), so his riding at the head of the race and ending up sixth in E3 was quite something. Even better, he attacked to bridge up both himself and his leader Dylan van Baarle to the leading group after the race split up on the Taaienberg, putting him in the elite finishing order, albeit minus the Jumbo victors. And on another bright note, Tom Pidcock was able to return for Gent-Wevelgem, though his stomach issues left him a ways off from his top form just a week out from the big event. Maybe by Paris-Roubaix??
3. Trek-Segafredo ↔
Results: Fourth in G-W
Reviews? Things could be worse! Jasper Stuyven looked solid on the front of the race Sunday, just 8 days after begging off his defense of MSR with illness. Pedersen has been fine too, if not overly conspicuous, but should be a help to Stuyven. Unfortunately Quinn Simmons has been struggling to bounce back from illness of his own, and might be held out Sunday if he doesn’t start to feel better. Markus Hoelgaard won’t be recovered for Flanders either (is anyone not ill?), but maybe the team will recover its depth for Paris-Roubaix.
4. Intermarché-Wanty ↑
Results: Fifth in E3, 1st in G-W
Reviews? Leaping from the ranks of the unrated! Obviously Girmay is the big story, but they were actually all over the front of G-W with three riders — Kristoff, Pasqualon and Petit — in the main chase group should the leading quartet get reeled in. Kristoff, the old dog, was just on the podium of Milano-Torino, and was sixth in Flanders last year. Could he have impeccably timed his form for the cobbles once again? Sure looks that way.
5. Alpecin Fenix ↑
Results: Sixth in G-W
Reviews? Tim Merlier basically won the sprint from the peloton, behind the winning quartet and an escaping SKA. Jasper Philipsen was right there too, and they’ve had their usual supporters (Gogl, Vermeersch) in contact. So when they add.... drum roll please... MATHIEU GODDAM VAN DER POEL!!! to the lineup at Dwars Wednesday, well, they might not be sitting in fifth for long. Van der Poel capped off his training phase, known as Settimana Coppi e Bartali, with a sprint win on Friday, so while that was in a race that is 100km shorter than de Ronde, it’s hard not to see him as the guy to slow down Van Aert, as mentioned above. Whether he caps it off or opens up the chances of the rest, well, that’s why they run the races.
6. Quick Step ↓
Results: 10th in E3
Reviews? Not great. Mikkel Honoré turned up ill, Julian Alaphilippe didn’t turn up at all, and Florian Sénéchal got felled by a puncture at the worst possible time in E3 (and then crashed in G-W). That left Kasper Asgreen more or less alone to do something on Friday, and with only Lampaert nearby Sunday. Asgreen himself isn’t on a heater, so it will take a reversal in the team’s fortunes to make something happen in Flanders. The good news is that Sénéchal can’t have bad luck forever. In theory, anyway.
7. Groupama FDJ ↑
Results: Third and seventh in E3, 10th in G-W
Reviews? Küng got his first podium of note in the Cobbled Classics (I see you there Driedaagse de Panne), but it might be Madouas who is the breakout rider for the FDJs, looking plenty strong in E3. Démare was in position for GW too, with Olivier LeGac for help. They have a nicely rounded team coming together at the right time.
8. UAE ↔
Reviews? Trentin didn’t do much Sunday (after winning Le Samyn), but whatever, it’s all about Pogačar, who will be at Dwars to give us a preview of what he can do here. I honestly have no idea, though I am clearly not buying the simple reasoning that just assumes he can win (scroll up).
9. TotalEnergies ↓
Results: Third in G-W
Reviews? 2018 is starting to feel like forever ago for Niki Terpstra, and maybe Sagan too, but their young(ish) protégés Dries Van Gestel and Anthony Turgis are positioned to keep the team in the hunt. Turgis, second in MSR, might have been suffering from a bit of a post-Riviera hangover, as so often happens coming off a big result there. But the form is not to be doubted.
10. AG2R ↓
Reviews? Curiously poor start to the cobbles for Naesen and Van Avermaet at AG2R, although Gouden Greg was a bit better Sunday. They still have the horses (DeWulf too), they just need to get them out of the barn.
Honorable Mentions: DSM could make it onto the next edition if Soren Kragh Andersen keeps on the attack. Movistar had Ivan Garcia and Alex Aranburu hanging around both days, and though I don’t see the latter continuing, Garcia is a regular top 20 guy with a shot to make a bigger impression.