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Considering how Deceuninck-Quick-Step has bossed the Classics so far this year, with team-wide brilliance, it was hardly a surprise to see a team putting on a tactics masterclass en route to the victory at the 103rd Ronde van Vlaanderen on Sunday.
It was a bit of a surprise that that triumphant team was not Quick-Step, but instead, EF Education First. Perhaps even more surprising, it was 25-year-old Italian Alberto Bettiol, not Flandrien stalwart Sep Vanmarcke, who delivered EF’s first monument victory since Dan Martin won Il Lombardia in 2014.
The decisive final 30 kilometers of the Tour of Flanders were as exciting as they were cagey. Bettiol’s brilliant legs earned him the win, but he got a huge leg up from his teammates—and from his rivals’ glaring lack of them in the finale. It was straight out of the Deceuninck playbook.
A herculean effort from Vanmarcke, clever riding from Langeveld
Sep Vanmarcke has spent the better part of the last decade among the pre-race favorites for the Tour of Flanders, having finished on the podium twice. This year was different for the 30-year-old. A bad crash at the E3 BinckBank Classic left Vanmarcke nursing a bruised knee. Heading into the biggest race on his calendar, Vanmarcke was nowhere near the top of the list of bookies’ favorites.
Instead of staying home, or worse, telling his team he was fine to be the day’s featured rider, Vanmarcke did what every sports director dreams of: He gave everything to set up a teammate for the victory.
Vanmarcke and the rest of EF played it conservatively in the first few hours of the day, saving energy for a big push that would come as the climbs began heating up.
“We wanted to be defensive until the Muur, be aware to what was happening on the Muur and be there, and go from there on the offensive,” sports director Andreas Klier said. “That means whenever somebody moved, we went with them.”
With a little under 60 kilometers to go, Vanmarcke did just that, joining an escape on the Oude Kwaremont that would become a dangerous lead group as the race hit a critical section on the parcours. As the riders traversed a brutal stretch of cobbled climbs with hardly any respite, Vanmarcke’s teammates back in the chasing group – Bettiol and Sebastian Langeveld – let their rivals put in the work.
The Koppenberg, Steenbeekdries, and Taaienberg whittled down chase group. A few featured riders and numerous domestiques were dropped. By the time they hit the Kruisberg, the “peloton” was down to only some 30 riders.
Vanmarcke lost touch with the lead group on the punchy climb, but Bettiol looked to be among the freshest riders in the entire second group, joining in with the likes of Bob Jungels (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) in forcing a small split. Vanmarcke drifted back to the chasers, took a swig from his bottle, and went back to work, taking over at the front.
The split did not last, but Vanmarcke did. Bettiol had proven that he was feeling great, and he was sitting in great position in a lined-out chase group, so Vanmarcke pulled and continued pulling all the way to the final trip up the Kwaremont. That kept Bettiol well-placed, it put pressure on his rivals, and it kept the escape in sight. As the group hit the climb, Vanmarcke finally swung off the front. One minute later, Bettiol made his move.
The Italian caught the last two up the road in a matter of seconds, and then he was gone.
As his rivals struggled to form a coherent chase, Langeveld went to work in his own crafty way.
Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) and Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) were the two best-placed chasers on the Oude Kwaremont, and their high pace forced a split behind. Langeveld, among those in that next group on the road, made his way to the front of the riders trying to close down that gap, and then, well, he didn’t exactly soft pedal, but he wasn’t really hitting the throttle either.
The groups ultimately reformed and Langeveld stayed quiet for a few minutes until the approach to the Paterberg when, again, he surged to the front only to ease off the gas.
Bettiol took a gap of around 20 seconds into the final 10 kilometers with a more or less compact chase group behind. Constantly lurking near the front of that group was Langeveld. Multiple times in the last 10 minutes of the Tour of Flanders, he rode into second wheel in the group, waited for the leader to swing off looking for someone else to take up the chase, and did … nothing. It was rarely more than a few seconds before someone else took over, but those seconds mattered in a big way to the rider up the road. Even with a star-studded cast of pre-race favorites in hot pursuit behind him, Bettiol hung on to take the win convincingly in Oudenaarde. His legs should get the lion’s share of the credit, but this was a team effort through and through, and he was sure to acknowledge that in the post-race interview.
“I knew Sebastian was there protecting me. Sep did an amazing job too. A champion like him working for us all day — it was just crazy,” he said.
“We’re a really good team. We showed we can win the Ronde van Vlaanderen. From now on, you should look more for the pink in the front.”
Sprinters without teammates
Even with Langeveld making things difficult at the front of the chase group, the composition of the much-reduced peloton was so strong that it seemed hard to believe that Bettiol would survive all the way to Oudenaarde. The gap looked like a manageable one. But the team dynamics of who had made the group and who hadn’t played heavily in Bettiol’s favor, dooming those in pursuit.
The 17-rider group that arrived in Oudenaarde after Bettiol included a staggering number of fast finishers. Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates) topped Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) in the sprint for third behind Bettiol and a late-attacking Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-Quick-Step). Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Greg Van Avermaet (CCC), Michael Matthews (Sunweb), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) were all in the selection as well, each one a potential Tour of Flanders winner if things had come together for a sprint finish.
None of them had teammates in the finale.
If Sagan’s lieutenant Daniel Oss had made the group instead of losing touch with nearly 40k to go, if Sven Erik Bystrom had been there for teammate and compatriot Kristoff, if Valverde rode for a Classics team that could actually be expected to protect him with support late in the race, it’s entirely possible Bettiol would have been caught by a chase group led by domestiques. Instead, no one rider felt like pulling his rivals to the line.
Lotto-Soudal and Deceuninck-Quick-Step were the only teams with real numbers in the waning kilometers of the race. Neither squad had a reliably fast finisher to make it worth showing much interest in chasing down Bettiol.
Lotto’s Jens Keukeleire is by no means slow, but his chances against the rest of the group seemed slim. Quick-Step, on the other hand, did have a pair of team leaders with respectable finishing kicks—but neither Zdenek Stybar nor Philippe Gilbert were anywhere to be found after the Paterberg. Gilbert was dropped an hour before Oudenaarde. Stybar was dropped on the Kruisberg.
Quick-Step’s powerhouse stable of Classics talents found themselves without their biggest guns when it mattered most. Instead of Stybar and Gilbert, Asgreen was the team’s strongest rider on the day, and he had been sent up the road alongside Vanmarcke as a foil for the bigger names. He survived into the finale with Bob Jungels and Yves Lampaert, making for a trio that could have helped propel Stybar to the win—if only he were there.
Asgreen, to his credit, soloed away from the group to take second at the end of a very long day, but you have to wonder how things might have played out if he had started the day as a team leader and saved his energy for an attack on the final trip up the Oude Kwaremont.
We’ll never know. What we do know is that EF’s sports directors and riders alike succeeded where their rivals failed. They drew up a plan that worked to perfection on the day, and now, Alberto Bettiol has his first pro win.
Fortunately for the likes of Sagan and Stybar, the cobbled Classics aren’t quite over. Indeed, there’s even another monument on the menu less than a week away. Oss and other lieutenants will have a big second chance to hang on deeper into the race for their team leaders. Stybar and Gilbert will have an opportunity to right the ship and try to make the final selection this time.
Bring on Paris-Roubaix…