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Over the storied cobbled bergs of Flanders on Sunday, Mathieu van der Poel beat Tadej Pogačar in a thrilling high-stakes battle of nerves to bag his second career Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) victory and cement his status as the sport’s premier cobbled classics racer. The two superstars found themselves alone ahead of the race after Pogačar exploded the race over multiple ascents of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg on the course’s brutal finish circuit, but the two-time Tour champion paid dearly for his risky racing style after being passed by a surging Dylan van Baarle and Valentin Madouas while playing a game of chicken during the wild sprint for the finish line.
The win marked an impressive turnaround for Van der Poel, who up until 15 days prior had yet to pin on a race number in 2022 after taking time off to recover from a back injury sustained at August’s Olympic Games. The win also allowed him, in the absence of his main nemesis Wout van Aert, to begin his assault on some of the all-time one-day greats and get within a single win of tying the all-time Flanders win record. At the same time, we saw a uniquely human moment from Pogačar, who up until this point, has appeared nearly unbeatable throughout the entirety of his career.
Flanders Race Notebook:
55km: Pogačar’s UAE team has burned themselves to a crisp after going all-out to close down a dangerous group including Mads Pedersen. Due to this, Pogačar is isolated and slightly out of position heading into the second pass of the Oude Kwaremont, but when the climbing starts, he easily blows by the others and moves up into prime position.
54km: Pogačar is still pushing up and over the steepest section with major names like Asgreen and Pedersen on his wheel, while both Van der Poel and Tom Pidcock are caught out and distanced.
54km: Van der Poel recognizes the race is riding away and goes all-out to close down the move while he still can. We can see Pidcock is right next to him but is unable to respond.
50km: At the top of Paterberg, Jan Tratnik has created an impressive gap and we can see that Van der Poel’s struggles on the previous climb were merely due to position since he is able to power up and over ahead of Pidcock, Pogačar and Pedersen.
49km: We see the shocking sight of three Ineos riders present in the elite group while Pogačar, Pedersen, and Van der Poel are all isolated, and QuickStep doesn’t have a single rider present.
48km: Ineos and Bahrain, the only two teams with multiple riders, waste no time using their numerical advantage by getting Dylan Van Baarle off the front with Fred Wright. This is a good move since it allows them to get out in front before the Koppenberg, where only the strongest will survive.
44km: At the top of the extremely steep and crucial Koppenberg, Pogačar, isolated and keen to take advantage of poor positioning from rivals with teammates, steps on the gas with Van der Poel and Madouas on his wheel and just shreds the field. Even Pedersen, who is just a few meters behind, is now out of the race, and anyone behind is simply out of contention for the win at this point. We also can tell Pogačar is feeling good since he is riding right on the crown of the road, the slowest part, while everyone else is fighting for position in the much smoother gutter.
37km: Van der Poel, Pogačar and Madouas catch the two leaders on the Taaienberg. Going over the top, their lead is only 34-seconds, but since the peloton is driven by previously dropped riders like Tom Pidcock, they don’t have a realistic shot to reel in the leaders over the brutal climbs left to race.
17km: Pogačar presses the pace on the final pass of the Kwaremont, and while the effort dumps both Wright and Madouas, and Van der Poel looks under slight pressure, it is obvious he isn’t going anywhere.
13.5km: Instead of sitting on and attempting to blitz Van der Poel on the Paterberg, the final climb of the race, Pogačar oddly shares the pacemaking pedal stroke for pedal stroke with Van der Poel, who gladly takes him up on the offer.
13km: On the absurdly steep Paterberg, Pogačar wedges open a slight gap, but it never gets larger than a single bike length.
And by the top, we can see Van der Poel is securely glued to his wheel and that they are headed for a sprint.
10km: Two odd decisions happen here. The first is Pogačar keeps pulling with Van der Poel and the second is Küng doing serious turns in the double-Bahrain chase group to close down the gap to his teammate Madouas.
1km: Pogačar finally stops working as they head under the final km banner. With the chasers bearing down on them, Van der Poel completely stops pedaling in an attempt to call his bluff, but Pogačar doesn’t budge.
250m: This cat-and-mouse game continues all the way down the final straight, even as Van Baarle and Madouas bear down on them. However, Van der Poel still doesn’t panic, and we can even see him wind up a false sprint before stalling in an attempt to force Pogačar past him. Pogačar doesn’t bite, but Van der Poel sees that he has created a gap with the false sprint and decides to press his advantage all the way home.
Finish: Once he launches, Van der Poel is in complete control even as the chasers catch them. He knows that the tired chasers won’t have the energy to come around him and that Pogačar will get caught in the chunder behind as he explodes away. This is exactly what happens and Van der Poel rides to a massive win while Pogačar loses everything after getting caught behind and finishing 4th.
1) Mathieu Van der Poel +0
2) Dylan Van Baarle +0
3) Valentin Madouas +0
4) Tadej Pogačar +0
5) Stefan Küng +2
6) Dylan Teuns +2
7) Fred Wright +11
8) Mads Pedersen +48
9) Christophe Laporte +48
10) Alexander Kristoff +48
1) Mathieu van der Poel is the King of Flanders
- He may be from neighboring Holland, but the Dutchman has now won two out of the last three editions, and if not for botching the sprint in 2021, would be on an incredible three-year win streak. This means he is an ill-timed sprint from being tied for the most Flanders win of all time in just four appearances.
- From saving his race after being distanced on the Kwaremont to calling Pogacar’s bluff in the finale, he was in complete control of the race and displayed a tactical maturity we haven’t seen from the Dutchman in the past.
- His decision to hold steady before hitting Pogacar with a long sprint seemed to be adopted from Asgreen’s long-sprint tactic that toppled him 12-months earlier.
- This all points to a tactically new-and-improved Van der Poel who races with both brain and brawn. If this is a permanent feature, it could signal the beginning of a reign of terror over the Cobbles.
2) Tadej Pogačar looked human for a brief moment
- After sensing his UAE team had run out of gas chasing down the dangerous Pedersen group with around 50-kilometers to go, Pogačar undertook a risky and rare strategy of simply blowing the thing up and forcing his rivals into a man-on-man contest. This was incredibly savvy since it left the other classics stars isolated and vulnerable on the steep climbs where Pogačar thrives.
- But, for a few minutes on Sunday, he looked like a 23-year-old who lacks experience in cobbled races, not an unbeatable superstar. While Van der Poel looked in complete control in the final 17-kilometers, Pogačar couldn’t have been more lost. When his sole trick of riding as hard as possible on the climb didn’t dislodge Van der Poel, he failed to get creative and instead seemed content to ride to the line for a sprint finish where he didn’t stand a chance.
- The correct decision would have been to stop working immediately after realizing he couldn’t drop Van der Poel, either after the Paterberg, or even the Kwaremont, he instead took long pulls all the way to the final kilometer. Sitting on and forcing Van der Poel to make the tough decision as to keep riding or sitting up and waiting for the chasers would have conserved energy and given him a shot at winning a long sprint, or even taking advantage of the chaos once the catch was made.
- And even if he was content to let things come to a sprint, he needed to launch first to avoid getting caught up in the mele after being caught by Dylan van Baarle and Valentin Madouas and attempting to use his superior endurance to ‘burn off’ Van der Poel as Asgreen did in 2021.
- After the dust settled, the question emerges of what was the point of anything he did in the final 13-kilometers? He seemed to be riding for second place but then let it slip through his fingers.
3) Valentin Madouas has been hiding in plain sight
- The incredible ride to 3rd from the 25-year-old Frenchman made him only the 4th French podium finisher here in 30 years.
- At a glance, he came out of nowhere to go toe-to-toe with the two strongest riders in the world, but, if we look closely back at his results, this outlier performance makes sense. He finished 11th at Dwars and 7th at E3, and has challenged for Tour and Giro stage wins in the recent past.
- On paper, his FDJ team has an incredible day with two riders inside the top ten, but the sight of his teammate Stefan Küng taking major turns from 35km out to reel him in seems incredibly odd and hints at extreme disharmony and poor management inside the team. Not only is racing against one’s own teammate taboo, but it also made little sense since Küng’s only chance of success was to let others work for him and then attack for a solo win.
4) Dylan Van Baarle & Ineos are serious Classics Contenders
- Ineos continued their impressive Classics run with a massive second place from Van Baarle, who, despite never looking supremely strong, was able to beat the unstoppable-looking Pogačar.
- This 2nd place was Van Baarle’s first career monument podium and builds off his surprise runner-up at the 2021 World Championship.
- At this rate, Van Baarle will need to be considered a contender at major one-days in the future and is showing his former team manager’s comments about him not being a top-tier Classics talent to be extremely foolhardy.
- His Ineos had an extremely strong numerical advantage at times but struggled to press it after Tom Pidcock, who looked extremely strong up the second ascent of the Paterberg, showed his inexperience after being consistently caught in poor position.
5) Mads Pedersen went too early
- The 2019 World Champion looked fantastic all day, but I have to wonder if he would have been able to follow Van der Poel and Pogačar on the Koppenberg to make the select lead group had he sat in earlier in the race instead of working up the road in the chase group.
6) Jumbo-Visma wilted in the biggest moment
- Even in the absence of Wout van Aert, Jumbo has looked extremely strong all spring. But on Sunday, their riders, who have possessed superhuman strength all season, seemed to crumble in the biggest moment.
- While Benoot and Laporte both looked strong at times and had a few great moves, in the end, they walk away with just a 9th and 13th place at one of their major objectives.
- In a vacuum, these are good results, but in this context, are disappointing considering how they appeared unshakeable on the cobbled climbs at E3, Gent-Wevelgem, and Dwars. Also, the team seemed to fail in getting creative the way Van Baarle and Ineos did to get clear on the flats before a climb and instead, rode as if they were still working for Van Aert.
- For example, despite having Benoot and Laporte at the front going into the Koppenberg, both riders were unable to respond to accelerations and found themselves missing the move after the climb. Also, Benoot appeared to have the same strength he showed on Wednesday when he closed a major gap on the final pass of the Kwaremont to nearly bridge up to Wright and Madouas. At this point, with Benoot nearly in the second group and Laporte in the biggest group behind, the team still had an outshoot shot at a podium. But, it all fell apart in the short distance to the Paterberg and the team was quickly out of contention for the top spots.
- On the plus side, Laporte’s crash earlier in the race likely kept him from responding as well as he would have liked to and their top rider, Wout van Aert was absent from the race.
- However, after watching Van der Poel match Pogačar on the final two climbs, it isn’t clear to me if he would have been able to either drop Van der Poel or outsprint him for the win.
7) Bahrain-Victorious is for real
- The team that until recently was a band of loveable losers got four riders in ahead of QuickStep’s top-placed rider and gets two riders inside the top ten with Dylan Teuns in 6th and Fred Wright in 7th, and had three more in the top 30 (Jan Tratnik in 12th, Matej Mohorič in 21st and Jasha Sütterlin in 26th).
- An impressive data point is that outside of Sütterlin, every one of these riders netted their career-best result at the Ronde on Sunday.
- Most impressively, they were able to utilize previously unheard-of riders like Wright after their leader, Matej Mohorič, proved to be on a slightly off day.
- And Wright, the 22-year-old rider from London, appears to be the real deal after getting up and over some of the hardest one-day terrain in cycling at the end of the brutally long monument.
8) Is this the end of an era for QuickStep?
- One thing is clear after Sunday and it is that QuickStep is a team in a deep identity crisis. They rode as though they were the QuickStep of a few years ago by getting a few riders into the dangerous Mads Pedersen group, but in the end, they don’t have the personnel to finish this work off in the ‘swarm’ fashion the team has employed in the past.
- Even though defending champion Asgreen had a dropped chain at the top of the Koppenberg, he was already too far back at that point to make the lead group and in the past, the team would have been able to come up with another option for the final 50kms.
- These disappointing results could be the result of nearly the entire team falling ill this spring, but frankly, this isn’t terribly unique. To gain insight into this rapid decline, I would look towards their transfer strategy over the past few seasons, which has seen the team continue to double down on its established veterans over the cobbles and fail to invest in the next hot one-day talents like Girmay and Madouas.
- This is the first time they have failed to get a top ten finish at the first two spring monuments since the founding of the team in 2003.
9) Once again, we saw that getting out in front of the race at Flanders can generate results
- Neither Van Baarle nor Madouas were the strongest rider on the day, but they used lulls earlier in the race to their advantage by getting out ‘ahead of the race’ and as a result, walked away with a podium finish ahead of some of the world’s biggest stars.
- As we saw with Pedersen, this tactic can carry risk, but it is proven over and over again that at these difficult one-day races, acting too early is almost always rewarded over waiting too long.
10) Was this odd edition the new normal?
- I found watching this edition of De Ronde particularly strange since at all the landmarks and points later on the course where the race traditionally heats up and we see explosive attacks, the race had been blown to pieces so much that there was little left to decide. And if we recall, this is a similar theme to the opening monument of the year.
- The combination of the dangerous escape group requiring the peloton to ride full gas from essentially 90km-to-go and Pogačar’s attack on the second ascent of the Kwaremont drained any of the usual tension out of the final pass of the Kwaremont and Paterberg and meant the only question left to answer was if Van der Poel could stay glued to Pogačar’s wheel.
- Of course, the stalling in the final kilometer provided extreme excitement, but in reality, Van der Poel was always going to be able to outsprint Van Baarle and Madouas, who were extremely tired of chasing full gas.
- It is difficult to discern if this ‘blow-it-up-early’ edition of Flanders is a product of the presence of a once-in-a-generation grand tour star, a peloton on its knees due to illness, or just the way things will be going forward.