Tour of Flanders form-book: Five thoughts from E3 Classic and men’s Gent-Wevelgem

What did the last block of cobblestone racing tell us about the key players for De Ronde?

Photo: Getty Images

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From the scintillating attacking of E3 Saxo Bank Classic to the grueling attrition of men’s Gent-Wevelgem, the stage is set for this weekend’s Tour of Flanders.

Deceuninck-Quick-Step put a full press on the peloton to storm to victory with Kasper Asgreen at E3 on Friday, while Wout van Aert proved fastest after 250km of crosswinds and cobbles at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.

So with the bergs of Flanders and pavé of Paris-Roubaix just around the corner, what have we learned from these two cobblestone clashes?

Wout van Aert times peak to perfection

Wout van Aert has hit his stride at the perfect time. After suffering an altitude hangover at Strade Bianche and being marked out of contention at Milano-Sanremo, “WvA” roared into form at the E3 and Gent-Wevelgem.

In fact, van Aert had stronger legs than brainpower on Friday, riding so hard in the chase groups that he blew himself up. Nonetheless, the Jumbo-Visma captain bounced straight back Sunday, riding the perfect race at Gent-Wevelgem to win his first major northern classic.

Also read: Van Aert too hot for his own good in E3 Saxo Bank implosion?

Key rivals Mathieu van der Poel and Julian Alaphilippe both sat out Wevelgem, instead opting to race the shorter, “easier” Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday.

Whether it’s better to follow van Aert’s road to Flanders by racing the mini-monument that is Gent-Wevelgem before enjoying a full seven-day rest or wiser to skip Sunday and instead keeping the racing legs turning at Dwars is one for physiologists and coaches. However, van Aert’s victory in one of the most grueling races of the season so far will see him going into Tour of Flanders high on confidence and even higher in the ranking of favorites.

Deceuninck-Quick-Step is not a one-man band

Deceuninck-Quick-Step has long made strength in depth its “thing” and Patrick Lefevere’s “Wolfpack” more than proved that at E3.

Kasper Asgreen, Florian Sénéchal, Zdeněk Štybar, and Yves Lampaert flooded the front zone at E3, with the Dane delivering an emphatic victory that hit back at the notion that van der Poel and van Aert are invincible.

Two days later, it was unlikely hero Sam Bennett that made it to the front of Gent-Wevelgem after a crash split the bunch after just 70km of racing. Štybar and Lampaert were caught in a Catch-22 in the first chasing group, torn between bridging across to lend the Irishman a wheel or loiter back in the bunch to disrupt the chase.

Also read: Kasper Asgreen leads Quick-Step masterclass at E3 Saxo Bank Classic

While Gent-Wevelgem may have marked a misfire in the tactics department, the Quick-Step engine room of Asgreen, Štybar, and Lampaert looked fearsome as ever in the team’s Flandrien back yard.

Julian Alaphilippe returns to action for Tour of Flanders this weekend, but the team has more than proven that there’s more than one lead wolf in Lefevere’s pack. Van Aert, van der Poel and Co. will be hunted from all angles at De Ronde this weekend.

Bora-Hansgrohe, Trek Segafredo hit untimely divot

Bora-Hansgrohe and Trek-Segafredo were notable by their absence Sunday. Both teams, including defending champ Mads Pedersen and Milano-Sanremo winner Jasper Stuyven, had to withdraw from Gent-Wevelgem due to COVID complications.

Not only did the two squads miss a key race in its own right, but also a vital final test ahead of the approaching monuments which will unsettle a finely tuned training and racing schedule designed to peak for Flanders and Roubaix. And worse still, both Bora-Hansgrohe and Trek-Segafredo are unlikely to be able to start Dwars door Vlaanderen this week due to quarantine procedures.

Also read: Bora-Hansgrohe, Trek-Segafredo out of Gent-Wevelgem

The setback will be hardest felt at Trek-Segafredo, where Stuyven and Pedersen have both scooped major wins this season and have looked on stellar form. Bora-Hansgrohe, which missed both E3 and Wevelgem, will find some salve in the fact that Peter Sagan will be flying into Belgium hot off a confidence-boosting win at the Volta a Catalunya.

For Stuyven, Pedersen, and Sagan’s wingmen Nils Politt and Daniel Oss, missing out on a big block of racing right ahead of Flanders will sit as comfortably as a cobblestone beneath a flat bike tire.

The old guard is running out of gas

It’s taken a lot of scrolling down the results sheets to find names such as Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert, Alexander Kristoff, and John Degenkolb this year.

Though Gilbert and Van Avermaet have shown flashes of form, the “old boy’s club” of the classics is slowly but surely losing ground on the new generation of van Aert, van der Poel and Co.

Gilbert failed to finish both E3 and Gent-Wevelgem, and his teammate Degenkolb was largely anonymous. Kristoff has similarly failed to show his grizzled jowls at the pointy end of the race, even in a Gent-Wevelgem packed with all the attritional grind that the Norweigan has made his forte.

Also read: Van Avermaet reflects on bittersweet performance at E3 Saxo Bank Classic

“Golden Greg” is the lone old-timer that has consistently been near to the wheels of the young whipper-snappers that are dominating this year’s classics, and hit into the top six on Friday. It’s hard to imagine Van Avermaet scoring that long-elusive Flanders win this year, but he seems the most likely candidate to be flying the flag for the granddads on Sunday.

Peter Sagan could pull a surprise

It would be a long shot, but Peter Sagan could still see success on the stones this spring.

The Slovak turned a corner with his stage win at Volta a Catalunya on Saturday. Sagan’s stage win marked the completion of a return to form after his disastrous start to the season due to a COVID infection and race-disrupting spell in quarantine.

Sagan’s strike in Spain may have been against a much-diminished field of fastmen, but it proved he’s still got the wins in his legs. And coming hot off the back of a close fourth-place at Milano-Sanremo, it’s hard to totally dismiss the idea of Sagan taking his second Flanders or Roubaix in April.

Also read: Dear cycling, please don’t forget Peter Sagan

His Bora-Hansgrohe squad may be sitting out a trio of warm-up races due to the COVID case in its bubble, but if anyone can win the hardest races without a team around him, it’s Sagan.

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