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Cobbled classics season kick-started at full speed with Friday’s E3 Saxo Bank Classic.
Kasper Asgreen brought home the champagne for Deceuninck-Quick-Step after it placed a full press on the final hours of action by attacking, counterattacking, and marking their rivals into submission in what made for a masterclass in one-day racing.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step stole the show, but behind them, what were key players Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and Greg Van Avermaet saying?
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix): 3rd
Mathieu van der Poel looked strong as ever Friday, but he was ultimately outnumbered and outmaneuvered by the Deceuninck-Quick-Step masses. The Dutchman was in all the key moves of the day, and was one of the first to counter Asgreen’s initial long-range attack at 65km to go and did much of the pulling from there.
It was van der Poel’s counterattack to van Aert on the Tiegemberg climb that ended his archrival’s race. In the final battle into Harelbeke, van der Poel found his attempts to chase down Asgreen’s race-winning move countered by Deceuninck-Quick-Step duo Florian Sénéchal and Zdenek Štybar.
Van der Poel met Van Aert: "Het lijkt alsof we een stukje van de Ronde herbekijken" pic.twitter.com/nkhOcF0jS9
— Sporza 🚴 (@sporza_koers) March 26, 2021
“Third place was the highest possible. The Deceuninck-Quick Step force was impressive, with Asgreen in the lead. He was the strongest man in the race and the deserved winner. The problem was if you closed it to Asgreen [when he first attacked] there were still four other riders left in the wheel who didn’t have to pedal with the wind today. But what should you do with so many Deceuninck men? If you countered one, the other will attack behind your back. You just knew that.
“I was good, but not great, either. The Italian block of racing [Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milano-Sanremo] was pretty hard. I noticed when I came back from Milan-Sanremo, I was pretty tired and had to take some extra rest. I didn’t do recon either for this race. Now we will be easy recovering for the last races.”
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma): 11th
Wout van Aert rolled home 11th after seeing his chances evaporate with an untimely puncture and rare race-ending bonk.
As the race was approaching its denouement Friday, the Belgian star punctured and fell out of a stellar lead group. The Jumbo-Visma captain regained contact after a long pursuit before attempting an ambitious attack on the Tiegemberg climb that rapidly faded, leaving him out of gas and dropped out of the back.
Van Aert led the chase of the lead group of van der Poel and Co., but didn’t receive the co-operation needed to haul himself back into contention, eventually finishing 1:30 down on Asgreen.
“Before the Taaienberg I already felt that the tire was deflating a bit. That was a very bad moment to change, so I waited until I really had to swap wheels. That’s where I lost the power I needed in the final. After my puncture I had to sacrifice all my teammates to quickly rectify the situation. The guys were there when they needed to be there. Those efforts obviously took a lot of strength.
“After my attack [on the Tiegemberg], I felt that there was no more left. After that it was a give-and-take until the end, but at the front they didn’t sit still, of course. Deceuninck-Quick-Step showed themselves a very strong block. They deservedly won the race. It’s a shame about today, but fortunately Gent-Wevelgem is coming up soon.”
Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r-Citröen): 6th
Greg Van Avermaet enjoyed one of his best performances of the season so far, finishing in sixth, with teammate Oliver Naesen just ahead of him in fourth. The Ag2r-Citröen duo battled into the lead group of seven before Asgreen made his decisive attack, and then launched a series of accelerations in the bid to haul back the hard-charging Dane. However, with two Deceuninck-Quick-Step riders in the group, “Golden Greg” and his wingman were stymied at every attempt.
"Van Avermaet! Van Avermaet! Van Avermaet" pic.twitter.com/YPYnypfBi4
— Sporza 🚴 (@sporza_koers) March 26, 2021
“It’s not too bad. We had a good final, I’m super happy to have followed the best in the key moments. In the end, it was not easy to react to Asgreen’s attack, but maybe we could have done a little better to try and play for the victory. When the race started in the Taaienberg, I was a little too far away and I was a little afraid that I had lost the race, but I think I proved afterward that I am one of the best.”