GHENT, Belgium (VN) – How does a team win the Tour of Flanders when Wout van Aert, Tadej Pogačar, and Mathieu van der Poel are in town?
That’s what’s keeping racers and directors across the classics peloton awake at night in the final days before De Ronde.
Mathieu van der Poel won Milan-San Remo. Wout van Aert gobbled up E3 Saxo Classic and might as well take the credit for Gent-Wevelgem too. And all the rest of the time, Tadej Pogačar played wildcard joker and Jumbo-Visma acted bully boys.
“We’re in a situation that we’re not used to. We’re not completely blown away, but there are three riders a level above the rest. That’s the case for all other teams,” Soudal Quick-Step director Tom Steels said after E3 Saxo Classic.
“They’re not lethal but it’s hard to fight up against them.”
Yet after a spring of picking off scraps, teams like Quick-Step, Trek-Segafredo, and Bahrain-Victorious could totally shift the tone of the spring with victory at De Ronde.
‘There are definitely ways of beating them’
Can the Flanders “shadow teams” and leaders like Tom Pidcock, Matej Mohorič, Stefan Küng, Neilson Powless, Mads Pedersen, and Julian Alaphilippe turn Tour of Flanders upside down Sunday with an off-the-script victory?
If it’s going to happen, the consensus is that offense is the best defense in the face of a potential “big three” onslaught.
Chaser squads see anticipating the moves with numbers both in the break and in the pack of favorites as a must.
“We have several cards, and that’s good for us. We’re a good team, but we’re not the favorites. So we have to take advantage and anticipate,” Groupama-FDJ’s captain Küng said. “We need to get riders in front of the others and still be up there where they come from behind.”
Putting numbers into the break or into key splits is nothing new. It’s how classics have been raced for decade after decade.
But now, the “big three” are reinventing the way classics are raced. Pogačar is committed to bending a race whichever way he wants, and Van der Poel is capable of crushing the bunch with just one of his trademark wattbombs.
“We’ve seen the finals start a lot earlier this year. Van der Poel, Pogačar, they have the balls to go early and aren’t afraid of blowing up, we also saw the same with Pidcock in Strade Bianche,” Trek Segafredo team director Stephen de Jongh told VeloNews.
Flanders could already be deep into its decisive phases far before the crucial “seventh hour” of monument racing Sunday.
Putting a rider into the early break gets a head-start on wild long-range raids and keeps workhorses out of the churn of a Jumbo-Visma lockdown on the leaders’ group.
“There are definitely ways of beating them, but we’ve got to have as many numbers up there from early as possible,” Bahrain-Victoroius rider Fred Wright told VeloNews. “At E3 they were a class above everyone else. It seems having riders all over the road is the best chance.”
Trek-Segafredo staffer De Jongh said anticipating the carnage could help – to an extent.
“Maybe you can anticipate moves, but it all depends on the race that day, the conditions, the weather,” he said.
The cobbled monuments are the most chaotic and uncontrollable of the calendar. Trying to reinvent the wheel on the day the world tunes into De Ronde is loaded with risk.
Trek Segafredo tried to put a lock on the peloton at Dwars door Vlaanderen in what might be a preview for Sunday’s big show.
“We can’t let those three change how we race, and we’ll start from our own strength,” De Jongh said of Flanders. “At the end of the day, we can’t control them, and we know that if things work out right, Mads [Pedersen] could beat them in a sprint.”
‘It’s not complicated, I can either follow or I can’t’
All of Flanders’ “second tier” are relying on numbers rather than one ace card.
Powless has Mikkel Honoré, Küng has Valentin Madouas, Mohorič has Wright, Alaphilippe has Kasper Asgreen, and Pedersen has Jasper Stuyven.
Wielding every watt from a team’s bench will be crucial if the “big three” hit Flanders with fireworks in their legs.
But like always, it’s individual strength that wins glory in Oudenaarde. And for Mohorič, Küng, Pidcock and Co., that’s the problem.
“These three have shown they’re all in top shape and they made the race in E3. Everyone expects them to make the race on Sunday, but I want to be able to be with them in the final,” Pidcock said Friday in a team conference. “It’s not complicated, I can either follow or I can’t – I hope it’s the former.”
Even Mohorič, a rider notorious for winning with brainpower and racing nous, knows only his best legs and a rare stroke of luck will deliver victory against three generational talents at De Ronde.
“I feel the best I ever did, so I’m confident we can get a classics podium if the stars align,” Mohorič said of racing against Pogačar, Van Aert and Van der Poel at E3 Saxo Classic.
“The best three guys were the best today and on the podium, but in these races things happen, crashes, accidents. Hopefully, we are on the lucky side in at least one classic and can take a win or at least the podium.”
Canny tactics and strength in depth will help any hopeful outsiders Sunday.
But just like Mohorič implied – anything can happen over 273km of Flanders’ foulest.