Tour of Flanders preview: Van der Poel, Van Aert, Pogačar resume spring rivalry

After thrilling contests at Milan-San Remo and the E3 Saxo Classic, cycling's 'Three Kings' are back at it again at Flanders' Finest.

Photo: Gruber Images

Contests like this don’t come along too often in a generation, and we are in for a treat this weekend as road cycling’s so-called “three kings” reunite at the Tour of Flanders.

Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, and Tadej Pogačar are three riders at the peaks of their powers who take pleasure in going toe-to-toe in cycling’s most prestigious races.

We got our first glimpse of this spring’s hottest contest at Milan-San Remo earlier this month. Van Aert, Van der Poel, and Pogačar got away over the Poggio with Filippo Ganna along for the ride, showing that they’re a clear level above just about everybody else at the moment.

Van der Poel drew first blood with his caring dive down the Poggio’s descent to solo to victory.

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The “three kings” were back together again at the E3 Saxo Classic, the main prelude to the Tour of Flanders. Riders that finish in the top 10 at E3 are the hot favorites for De Ronde and, once again, Pogačar, Van der Poel, and Van Aert were a level above.

Despite the best efforts of Pogačar, the trio rode into Harelbeke line astern and the win would come down to the sprint. Van Aert had the number of his rivals on this occasion and took the top honors, in spite of looking less than over some of the climbs.

Who will come out on top when the band gets back together at “Flanders’ Finest?”

How do the ‘Three Kings’ stack up?

The E3 Saxo Classic podium
The E3 Saxo Classic podium (Photo: Gruber Images)

It is almost impossible to predict which of the three might score the win, but the race seems destined to be decided between them.

If it’s ever possible for Pogačar to be an underdog, it is over the cobbles of the Tour of Flanders against two of the best classics riders of their generation where he is most likely to adopt that role.

The Slovenian has shown that he’s quick to adapt, after making his cobbled classics debut last year, and he can certainly roll with the best. However, matching the best and beating them are two very different prospects.

At last year’s Flanders, Pogačar learned a tough lesson after playing too many games with Van der Poel as they ostensibly contested the victory only to be caught by a chasing group and miss out on the podium altogether.

At last weekend’s E3 Saxo Classic, he played it very differently and took the early sprint, only to be swamped by his faster companions. It was another tough lesson, but Pogačar is quick to learn and the longer parcours of the Tour of Flanders will make for a different scenario compared to E3.

“It would be even nicer if I had a bit more punch in the end. I tried to attack two times, but they expected it, they raced to their assets and were on my wheel. I hope next Sunday (at De Ronde) it will be a different story,” Pogačar said after E3.

Wout van Aert leads Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogacar
Wout van Aert leads Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogacar (Photo: Gruber Images)

Of the three, Van Aert seemed to be the furthest from his peak form at E3, which was evident as he yo-yoed off the back of the three-man lead group when Pogačar piled on the pressure. While he was always able to grind his way back, he didn’t look as comfortable as the other two.

It is perhaps why Van Aert is the only one of the three that decided to race between E3 and Flanders by starting at Gent-Wevelgem, where he helped to smash the race apart and pace his teammate Christophe Laporte to victory, finishing second behind him.

“Last year, I was more on the top of my game than I was today. Last year, I was attacking and winning the race with Christophe [Laporte], and it was super special to win like that,” Van Aert said of Jumbo-Visma’s impressive 1-2 success at the 2022 race.

“Today, with my current shape, I decided to race more defensively and try to hang on. That makes it more beautiful by not being the strongest in the race. It’s the victory that counts.”

Van Aert’s slower start is perhaps expected after he was forced to delay the start of his road season following a brief illness before his expected start at Strade Bianche. He will be hoping that the extra racing will pay dividends Sunday as he will have plenty more climbs to hang in on.

If Van Aert can take his first Tour of Flanders victory this weekend, it will be the seventh time in the last 20 years that a rider has won both E3 and De Ronde in the same season.

Mathieu van der Poel pushing the pace
Mathieu van der Poel pushing the pace (Photo: Gruber Images)

Conversely, Van der Poel appears to be the rider most inside his comfort zone this spring, despite losing out to Van Aert in the E3 sprint finish.

He was the quickest to respond to Pogačar’s attack on the Poggio, before subsequently dropping his companions on the descent. Last Friday, he animated the E3 Saxo Classic from far out and looked untroubled by Pogačar’s multiple attacks in the closing kilometers.

“I’m not hiding that this is the style of racing I like. Going to the decisive climbs in a small group because there’s less pushing around,” Van der Poel said of his approach to E3.

“The positioning went really well today. The course really suits this style of racing. You’re riding from one key point to another. The wind wasn’t favorable, otherwise, it would’ve been decided even earlier. In hindsight, I can only be satisfied.”

Van der Poel’s attacking may have taken the wind out of his sails a bit when it came to the sprint to the line, but he will be comfortable in the knowledge that he can beat Van Aert — and Pogačar — in a straight-up sprint to the line. Memories of his sprint against the Belgian to take his first Tour of Flanders win in 2020 will still be relatively fresh in the mind.

Who else?

What can Tom Pidcock do?
What can Tom Pidcock do? (Photo: Chris Auld)

While the trio of Van Aert, Van der Poel, and Pogačar will be tough to beat, there are some other riders and teams to consider this Sunday.

Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) is a relative unknown going into this race after being forced to take time off his bike after picking up a concussion at Tirreno-Adriatico. The Brit blasted away his competitors at Strade Bianche earlier this month and if he can find even a little bit of that form he will be a worry for the top-three contenders.

Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) had a bit of an off-day at E3 but the Danish rider is still in good shape. Meanwhile, Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Victorious) and Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) have the potential to cause chaos.

Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar) is not a serious consideration for victory, but the American will be one to watch Sunday. Jorgenson put in a huge ride to finish fourth at his debut E3 Saxo Classic last week.

Other Americans set to race are Magnus Sheffield (Ineos Grenadiers), Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost), and Kevin Vermaerke (Team DSM).

Soudal Quick-Step has endured another dismal classics campaign and has proved practically invisible when the racing action really takes off. It’s a stark contrast to the team at the beginning of the last decade with the team now struggling to get just one rider into the mix, let alone multiple options.

The team has Julian Alaphilippe back at the race as the Frenchman made Flanders the main aim of his spring campaign. However, he has been struggling to hit the mark so far as has 2019 Flanders winner Kasper Asgreen. The team is going to need nothing short of a miracle if it wants to turn its fortunes.

The Route

Distance: 273.4km
Start: Bruges
Finish: Oudenaard
Climbs: 19
Cobbled sectors: 6

The 2023 Tour of Flanders route and parcours
The 2023 Tour of Flanders route and parcours

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