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The cobbled classics step up a notch Sunday at the Tour of Flanders.
De Ronde is the beginning of cycling’s so-called “Holy Week” which culminates with Paris-Roubaix next weekend. After weeks of titanic fights across the cobbles of northern Europe, the two monuments provide an opportunity to cap off a supreme campaign, or a last-chance saloon to salvage something.
Once a mighty force in the classics, Soudal Quick-Step’s star has waned in recent seasons and the Belgian squad has struggled to match the power of Mathieu van der Poel, Tadej Pogačar, and Wout van Aert.
Can the team turn things around before the spring is out or is it destined for another disappointing performance?
- Wout van Aert and the weight of Tour of Flanders expectation
- Van der Poel, Van Vleuten, Jorgenson, Vollering: 10 riders to watch at the Tour of Flanders
- Tadej Pogačar and his Tour of Flanders problem
One thing is for certain, Quick-Step won’t be doing a repeat of Philippe Gilbert’s epic attack up the Muur van Geraardsbergen in 2017 to solo to victory since the iconic climb was removed from the route for the COVID-19 delayed 2020 race and it hasn’t returned.
Does the Tour of Flanders miss the Muur or is the race improved by its omission? We take a look at both of these questions.
Can Soudal Quick-Step save its classics season?
Jim Cotton, VeloNews
I think Quick-Step would need Eddy Merckx, Johan Museeuw, Tom Boonen, and the rest of the Belgian cycling gods to smile on them if they’re to deliver a victory this spring.
The “Wolfpack” has this season been beaten at its own game by Jumbo-Visma, and lacks the centerpiece that can keep pace with super-explosive talents like Tadej Pogačar and Mathieu van der Poel.
In its best years, the “pack” would pivot around one dominant central figure like Boonen or even Niki Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar. So far this spring, Soudal Quick-Step just doesn’t have that.
Kasper Asgreen and Julian Alaphilippe are still on the comeback trail and looking for their monument-winning legs. That leaves riders like Yves Lampaert, Davide Ballerini, and Florian Sénéchal trying to lead the team against three “Galacticos” that seem to have descended from another dimension.
Although Lampaert is always an outside contender, I can’t see Patrick Lefevere’s posse delivering the win until Asgreen or Alaphilippe get their engines roaring like before.
Sadhbh O’Shea, VeloNews
Stranger things have happened and it only takes one big win to turn a whole spring campaign around. If the team could score big at the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, the weeks of turmoil would be well forgotten.
That’s easier said than done and the once super Belgian squad will have to get through the mighty wall of Mathieu van der Poel, Tadej Pogačar, and Wout van Aert. If they want to defeat them at the Tour of Flanders, they’ll have to get creative and think outside the box. Going toe-to-toe with the three will almost certainly not deliver the big win they need.
Paris-Roubaix provides just about enough chaos to allow Quick-Step to thrive and give them a fighting chance at taking home a win. It’s there that the team has its biggest chance of turning things around before attentions turn to the Ardennes. The team has reversed its fortunes at the classics before so let’s not count them out just yet.
Another great video from the Classics is available on our YouTube channel 😃
— Soudal Quick-Step Pro Cycling Team (@soudalquickstep) March 30, 2023
Andrew Hood, VeloNews
Like Patrick Lefevere likes to say, the classics end at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, so if that’s the finish line, yes. Of course, that means Remco Evenepoel will have to carry team colors all by himself in a title defense at La Doyenne. I just don’t see how Asgreen, Lampaert, or Alaphilippe can turn things around.
There’s no way any of the northern classics crew will have the jet fuel to stay with the “three kings” at Flanders. Roubaix is the annual outlier, and if a rider like Asgreen or Lampaert is on a great day, anything can happen on the chaos of the cobbles.
It will be interesting to see if a panicking Lefevere slots Evenepoel into Amstel Gold Race or Flèche Wallonne to chase a win. What’s obvious is that Lefevere and his staff will have to rebuild their classics program, and fast.
Fred Dreier, Outside Magazine
While it may be highly unlikely, if somehow Julian Alaphilippe wins the Tour of Flanders, then yeah, Soudal Quick-Step can claim a major face-saving success this year.
That would be a huge milestone, since Alaphilippe has been trying since 2020 to win and has looked very strong at the race. Maybe if he plays his tactics correctly and beats Pogacar in a sprint, or breaks away on the Paterberg, this could come true.
It’s a long shot—I feel like an Alaphilippe victory would require Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Tadej Pogačar, and probably also Christophe Laporte to somehow get stuck in traffic and miss the start.
Does the Tour of Flanders miss the Muur van Geraardsbergen or is it better without?
Andrew Hood, VeloNews
Yes, it’s just not the same without it. Bike races are businesses, and Oudenaarde is paying a pretty penny to the organizers for finishing rights, but come on, it’s the Muur!
There are whispers that there are some other reasons why the climb is no longer in the race, but the official reason is that it’s too far from the string of finishing loops to close out the final two hours of racing. It’s true that at so far away the Muur doesn’t impact the race that much, but in my book, it’s an iconic moment in an iconic race. I say find a way to fit it in.
Fred Dreier, VeloNews
I was there in 2017 when Philippe Gilbert broke away on the Muur with 100km remaining. While it was cool, the climb simply came too early in the day for TV audiences to fixate on it. Thus, I’m fine leaving the Muur out. That’s why we have Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Muur van Geraardsbergen really should be an UNESCO World Heritage Site. pic.twitter.com/0tsLebG8BH
— Tour de Wines (@TourdeWines) March 27, 2023
Sadhbh O’Shea, VeloNews
The Muur has a special place in cycling, particularly at the Tour of Flanders. I would love to see it come back, but it would have to be under the right conditions. While it helped to set up Philippe Gilbert’s epic solo in 2017, it is too far from the finish to make a major difference on the outcome. Instead, it’s the final doubleheader of the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg that defines the race.
These climbs are great, but they lack the theatre and emotion that the Muur van Geraardsbergen provides. It would be great to see the Muur put back in its rightful place closer to the finish of De Ronde, but that would require an overhaul of the course that’s unlikely to come anytime soon, so it’s probably just wishful thinking.
Jim Cotton, VeloNews
From a historical and emotional perspective, the race misses the Muur. But in my opinion, the racing does not.
It’s a shame to see a climb rated one of the most iconic in the world to be stripped out of one of the most hyped races on the calendar. When the Muur is on RVV’s menu, it instantly becomes the gravitational pull of the race, whether it’s at the more recent location a long way from the finish, or in its original late-race location.
The Muur gives somewhere for local crowds to mass around and for bike fans everywhere else to get hyped about. Will the Muur make more history? But I also think that Flanders has more than enough stoke without the Muur, and that the final Kwaremont-Paterberg punch can be every bit as decisive.
I dig the way those paired climbs work together to extend the concluding drama and give different types of riders different options – do you go on the long ‘n’ steady Kwaremont or the brief but brutal Paterberg?