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The sport’s biggest teams flexed their collective muscles over the action-packed weekend that featured the opening of classics seasons with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, a battle of grand tour contenders at the UAE Tour and a pair of thrilling French one-day races at Faun-Ardèche and La Drôme. At Omloop, Wout van Aert stormed to the first cobbled classics win of the season behind a new-and-improved Jumbo-Visma one-day squad; Tadej Pogačar confirmed his status as the general classification rider to beat once again in 2022 by defending his UAE Tour overall title; and Fabio Jakobsen saved QuickStep’s opening weekend with an absolutely vicious sprint to win Kuurne on Sunday.
And at Ardèche and La Drôme, up-and-comers Brandon McNulty and Jonas Vingegaard outshone stars like Primož Roglič and Julian Alaphilippe on their way to signaling that they could be the number one options of the future for their respective UAE and Jumbo-Visma teams.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
31km:Coming into one of the race’s final climbs, Benoot gets to the front and drills it, which stretches out the massive front group. The Ineos duo Tim Pidcock and Jhonatan Narváez get right on his wheel, but it allows his Jumbo team leader Wout van Aert to tuck in right behind.
20km: Benoot’s move pulls out a select group, and 10kms later, he once again attacks to put pressure on the other contenders like Sonny Colbrelli and his Bahrain team since it forces them to chase but allows van Aert to get a ‘free’ ride on their wheels.
13km: And as soon as they reel in Benoot, van Aert attacks on the flat run-in before the final climb. We can see it catches the group slightly off-guard since they don’t respond until he has a few-meter gap, which, for a rider as strong as van Aert, is already too late.
The beauty of van Aert’s attack means he has already started to pry open a gap by the time he hits the slopes of the Bosberg.
12km: This means that when he crests the climb, he has a much larger gap than he would have had if he had waited until the climb to attack. Once he is up and over the climb, he is essentially free and clear since the group behind isn’t able to work together to pull van Aert back.
Finish: Van Aert rides relatively unchallenged to a solo victory while Sonny Colbrelli takes the sprint for second and Greg Van Avermaet proves that he is still incredibly fit with a third place.
Kuurne – Bruxelles – Kuurne
79.2km: Tom Pidcock was cranking the pace and splitting the peloton an extremely long way from the finish. I assume this is due to Ineos’ lacking a true sprinter and knowing their only chance of winning is to dump Jakobsen and get to the finish line with a very reduced group.
61.7km: Jumbo, for the second day in a row, is the dominant team at the front of the race, and Benoot once again lays down a brutal attack.
26.3km: After Benoot’s ‘softening’ moves, Christophe Laporte, Jumbo’s quickest rider, gets to work trying to rip a small group off the front.
1.2km: As they hit the finishing circuits, Laporte is clear with Narváez and Taco van der Hoorn and as the fastest rider in the group has a real chance at making this work.
Finish: Jakobsen launches his sprint early to make sure he has enough room to close down Laporte. When he opens up his sprint, he absolutely blows around the dangling breakaway survivors and more impressively, holds off Caleb Ewan, who has a superior position right in Jakobsen’s slipstream but still can’t get around for the win.
Ten Weekend Takeaways
1) Wout van Aert, despite not having raced before Saturday, is extremely fit and serious about the cobbled classics in 2022.
- With only one major cobbled win on his Palmarès, van Aert’s dominant win makes it clear that he is extremely serious about finally storming the classics in 2022.
- While the peloton is full of great cobbled riders, with Mathieu van der Poel sidelined due to a back injury, there is no other rider who is van Aert’s equal in terms of raw power and talent, which means there has never been a better opportunity for van Aert to have a season à la Fabian Cancellara in 2010 and 2013 when he won both Flanders and Roubaix in addition to at least one semi-Classic.
- The fact that 2022 once again appears to give the advantage to solo riders will only help him. At both Omloop and the French one-day races, we saw the same inability for chase groups to get organized that was so prevalent in 2021 (41 percent of WorldTour races in 2021 were won by solo riders). This seems to be a growing trend since chase groups have realized that whoever does the work to pull back the leader won’t be able to win the race. This type of solo-advantage racing will only help a rider like van Aert who can make long solo moves stick due to his extremely-high sustained power.
- But, while this win looked great, the data tells us a win here doesn’t necessarily portend success later in the season. After all, no rider has ever won both Omloop and Flanders in the same season due to the difficulty of holding peak form for over a month.
2) Jumbo-Visma is finally a one-day juggernaut and has real late-race support for van Aert in Tiesj Benoot and Christophe Laporte. Their additions to the team made all the difference on both Saturday and Sunday and allowed the team to leverage extremely simple bike-racing-101 tactics to their advantage.
- Laporte is an underrated but quick one-day rider who has both the strength to make moves stick and the speed to finish off moves.
- Benoot, an extremely strong rider who is a sub-par number 1 classics option, appears to have found his ideal position at Jumbo where he is free to use his considerable strength as a late-race decoy. He was key to van Aert’s win when he blew the race up for him with 31km to go and set up van Aert’s winning move when he attacked again with 20km to go. This is exactly what they were missing last year.
- Oddly, both riders will likely find themselves winning more often playing van Aert’s decoy at Jumbo than their roles as team leaders.
3) Ineos flexed their muscles but the end results from both Omloop and Kuurne show they might have a flawed cobbled strategy.
- I was surprised to read just how positive the British press, and the superteam themselves, cast their opening classics weekend, since outside of Narváez’s near-miss at Kuurne from the late breakaway, their top results for the two races were 18th at Omloop and 29th at Kuurne.
- They are attempting to leverage their talented young riders Tom Pidcock, Ethan Hayter, Magnus Sheffield, and Jhonatan Narváez as cobbled classics contenders, but, outside of their pure strength, they clearly lack the experience and, in Pidcock’s case, the heft to truly compete on the cobbles (at 58kg, Pidcock would be the lightest rider ever on record to win either Flanders or Roubaix).
- This shows us while they have an extremely strong lineup for the hillier Ardennes races, they almost certainly lack the experience and skillset to flourish at the bigger cobbled races for the near future.
4) QuickStep left the opening weekend with a win at Kuurne, but there should be a real concern that their cobbled prowess is slipping.
- Quickstep looked undeniably flat at Omloop and their top-placed rider Florian Sénéchal only finished in 9th place, which is their worst result here since the 2017 season.
- What shocked me the most was their conservative nature on both days. They were thoroughly outgunned on Saturday by Jumbo, and played an incredibly conservative strategy on Sunday for Jakobsen, but seemed slightly out-of-character for a team that always seeks to get a rider in a move to avoid racing off the back foot.
- But, despite their struggles, we can’t write them off just yet. In 2016 and 2017 they also struggled at Omloop but came back both years to get podium finishes at Flanders and Roubaix both years (2nd at 2016 & 2017 Roubaix and 1st at 2017 Flanders). And indeed, their ability to rally on Sunday at Kuurne and take the win shows they still have the talent and ability to win cobbled races in 2022.
- However, a potentially problematic trend I’ve noticed is that while the peloton is full of more and more extremely talented cobbled riders, QuickStep has been undergoing a talent drain. For the cobbles, riders who used to be 4th and 5th options like Florian Sénéchal and Yves Lampaert are now 2nd and 3rd options despite being at roughly the same physical level.
- And with Julian Alaphilippe skipping the cobbles to focus on the Ardennes, they don’t have a true top-tier contender in these rugged races outside of 2021 Flanders winner Kasper Asgreen. This lack of top-level talent at their bread-and-butter cobbled races means we could be seeing a slightly defanged WolfPack in 2022 and beyond.
5) Fabio Jakobsen is the best sprinter in the world. If there was any doubt before, there should be none now.
- The imposing Dutchman looked absolutely unbeatable while holding off Caleb Ewan, one of the sport’s fastest riders, with his extremely long sprint on Sunday at Kuurne.
- He has won 50% of all mass start races he’s taken part in this year and has emerged victorious in 12 out of the last 16 sprints he has competed in.
6) Tadej Pogačar weathered Adam Yates’s attack in the final few kilometers of Jebel Hafeet to win the final stage, and overall, for the second straight year at the UAE Tour.
- Despite being forced to recently take time off the bike due to a case of COVID, he appears just as strong as he was at the beginning of the 2021 season, and stronger than in 2020, when he finished 2nd to Yates at the UAE Tour.
- But what should worry other contenders is just how strong his newly upgraded UAE team looked. If Pogačar was unbeatable with one of the weakest supporting casts in the peloton, what chance does anyone else have with this newly constructed phalanx?
7) Adam Yates looked good all week, but we’ve seen these early-season flurries from him before and they aren’t always backed up by later season results.
- This February peak isn’t all Yates’ fault. In 2021, he came into the season incredibly strong but then was put on ice until the Vuelta in August, at which point he had lost all momentum.
- Also, after failing to drop Pogačar during his attack in the last kilometer, despite looking stronger, he seemed to sit up but then was worked over by Pogačar in the technical sprint. This gulf in racecraft shows why the two riders have such disparate palmarès despite being in relative lockstep at this race over the last three seasons.
8) Luke Plapp, the 21-year-old Australian national champion on Ineos, appears to be the real deal.
- After being the most aggressive rider on the first summit finish at Jebel Jais, he finished 5th on Jebel Hafeet.
- To put this into perspective, he finished 15-seconds in front of Aleksandr Vlasov, who on paper should be a much better climb. Also, Vlasov’s performance on the final climb appeared to be a bit of a regression to his 2021 form and should be a warning to anyone thinking of betting on him to win the upcoming Giro d’Italia.
Ardèche & La Drôme:
9) The races’ heavy hitters, Primož Roglič and Julian Alaphilippe, failed to win either day, but both had decent outings and appear to be ramping up gradually with an eye on the Ardennes classics later in the Spring.
- Alaphilippe was extremely active late in the race on Sunday at La Drôme, while Roglič appeared to either be sluggish due to long stints at altitude and/or happy to play the good teammate to build up capital with riders like Kuss and Vingegaard that he can call in when he gets to the Tour de France.
10) The winners of the two races, Brandon McNulty at Ardeche and Jonas Vingegaard at La Drôme, both won out of breakaway with impressive raw strength, and were part of the larger trend of the weekend that saw the sport’s most successful teams over the last few seasons, UAE, Jumbo and QuickStep, win all five of the weekend’s biggest races.
- It is still early in the year, and these races aren’t necessarily indicative of what will happen later in the season, but these three teams are a head above the rest in terms of accumulation of stars and tactical planning. In an era where the gulf between the haves and have-nots is getting wider and wider, I wouldn’t be shocked to see this trend continue all season long.