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It was his first pro victory.
Let that sink in for a moment. Now in his sixth professional season, Italian Alberto Bettiol, Sunday’s winner of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, had never won a pro race.
He’d come close. He’d finished second at the 2016 Bretagne Classic, behind Oliver Naesen, fourth at the 2016 GP Quebec, and sixth at the 2017 Clásica San Sebastian. His best result at a Monument had been at the 2017 Ronde van Vlaanderen, where he finished 24th, 2:32 behind Philippe Gilbert.
More recently, Bettiol had shown form at Milan-San Remo, launching the late-race attack on the Poggio that sprung Julian Alaphilippe into action, and ultimately victory, and again at E3 BinckBank Classic, where Bettiol finished fourth from a five-man group.
Still, no victories. No podium finishes at a one-day race since August 2016.
On Sunday in Oudenaarde, the 25-year-old EF Education First rider changed all of that. Bettiol won a pro race, and was it a big one.
It all started on the 2.2km long cobblestone climb of the Oude Kwaremont, with 18km remaining, where Bettiol jumped away from a select group of riders and went clear. He maintained his lead over the final cobbled climb, the short-but-steep Paterberg, and he then put in the effort of his life to hold off a chase group of pre-race favorites, winning by 14 seconds.
“I still can’t believe what I’ve done,” Bettiol said. “My first victory. I still don’t believe it. I felt good on the Kwaremont, and [EF Education First director Andreas Klier] said, ‘If you can, just go. I closed my eyes and just went. I looked back, and I had a good gap, and from the car they said to keep pushing. On the Paterberg, I didn’t lose a lot, and then it was fourteen kilometers, the longest of my life.”
In second place was 24-year-old Dane Kasper Asgreen, the top finisher for the heavyweight Deceuninck-Quick Step squad, who rode in the wind for the entirety of the final 50km, and then jumped away from the chase group in the closing kilometers.
Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), 2015 Flanders champion and recent winner at Gent-Wevelgem, took the bunch sprint for third.
Just behind Kristoff, and just off the podium, was Dutch champion Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus), whose ride matched Bettiol’s as the story of the race. Van der Poel crashed heavily with 60km remaining when, after striking his front wheel while hopping over a planter, he lost control of the front of his bike while attempting to come to a stop.
The world cyclocross champion and recent winner at Dwars door Vlaanderen took a new bike, spent 14km chasing back on, regained contact on the second trip over the Kwaremont, and was soon back at the front of the field attacking. It was a phenomenal performance for Van der Poel in his Flanders debut.
It was a race marked by disappointing performances and breakthrough rides. Defending champion Niki Terpstra crashed out in the first 100km. Former winner Peter Sagan followed moves, but could not crack the top 10. Gilbert, the 2017 winner, was unable to hold the pace inside the final 50km. Pre-race favorite Zdenek Stybar was dropped with 30km to go.
Meanwhile three young riders — Asgreen, Van der Poel, and Bettiol, the eldest at 25 — each left an imprint on the Tour of Flanders. What follows are the stories behind their rides.
BETTIOL: ‘WHY SHOULD I BE A FAVORITE?’
You can be forgiven if you didn’t put down money that Alberto Bettiol would win the Tour of Flanders. Few did. Though he’d shown form in the past month — he finished second in the final time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico, just three seconds behind Victor Campenaerts — Bettiol was not a proven winner. In fact, he wasn’t a winner at all.
The Tuscan — he hails from Castelfiorentino, between Florence and Siena in the Chianti area — turned pro with Cannondale in 2014, and was one of a handful of riders to change over to the Cannondale-Garmin team following the merger between the Italian and American squads in 2015. He spent three years on that squad before departing for BMC Racing last year, a season marred by injuries; he broke a collarbone at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and again at Bretagne Classic in August. He returned to the squad run by Jonathan Vaughters, since renamed EF Education First, for 2019.
At his post-race press conference, Bettiol was asked whether it was a mistake that he had not been mentioned as a pre-race favorite.
“I think it’s my fault,” he said. “I have to be more present at the front of the race, it’s not about you, it’s about me. It’s about my confidence. A lot of people who have followed me since a child, they try to convince me that I am a good rider and I never believed it. I never won a race, why should I win the Tour of Flanders? Why should I even be a favorite?”
In a post-race interview with Sporza, Van Avermaet — Bettiol’s teammate at BMC Racing last year — expressed surprise that the Italian had won. “I know him a bit,” he said. “He was a great talent, but also a bit lazy. Last year he was too fat. Now he may have made that click and he will finally do everything for [the sport].”
Yet Bettiol knew what it would take to win Flanders. In a May 2017 interview with CyclingTips, published in March 2018, Bettiol spoke about the Ronde, one of the races he felt best suited his characteristics.
“The Tour of Flanders is a very, very hard race to win, but if you feel good, it’s not such a hard race,” he said. “It’s the easiest race because people that are not good on the cobbles are at the back, and if you know where is the moment to go in the front, then you stay in the front for so many kilometers because the roads are narrow. Once you are there, you stay there. Then the selection is made and it is all about your legs. You don’t have to do anything, just stay in the front and move.”
And while that is more or less what happened, nearly two years after he spoke those words, it doesn’t come close to telling the full story of Bettiol’s victory.
In addition to “having the legs,” the Italian benefitted from several factors: impressive late-race teamwork from Sep Vanmarcke and Sebastian Langeveld, a tailwind in the final 10km, and, behind, a large group of mostly isolated team leaders who weren’t willing to take up the chase.
Vanmarcke, recovering from a knee injury at E3 BinckBank Classic last Friday, rode in a support role, jumping into a move with Stijn Vandenbergh (Ag2r La Mondiale), Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck–Quick-Step), and Dylan Van Baarle (Team Sky) on the second trip over the Oude Kwaremont with 56km to go.
Though he was dropped from the leaders, Vanmarcke went to the front of the chase group on the final trip over the Kwaremont, pulling for Bettiol and Sebastian Langeveld.
“I was sitting behind Greg Van Avermaet on the Kwaremont, expecting him to attack, but it never came,” Bettiol said. “From the radio I heard my sports director say if I have the legs, not to wait too much, because otherwise guys like Kristoff and Sagan — who are faster than me — might stay with me. Before the flat part of the Kwaremont, I attacked, and I never turned back. I looked on the asphalt after the Kwaremont and I couldn’t see anybody.”
With a 16-second lead, Bettiol was in perfect position to be in the front group after Paterberg, but there was bound to be faster finishers coming from behind. It wasn’t a winning calculation. But he had Langeveld there, perched at the front of the chase group, slowing things down and ready to follow any moves that might spring away. When Van Avermaet went after Bettiol following the Paterberg, Langeveld was there. When Benoot jumped away with 8km to go, Langeveld was on his wheel.
“I knew Sebastian was there protecting me,” Bettiol said. “Sep did an amazing job. A champion like him worked for us all day. It was just crazy. All the guys, Matti [Breschel], Sacha [Modolo], Tom [Scully], Taylor [Phinney], everybody. I think EF was on the front all day. We showed we can win the Ronde van Vlaanderen.”
With 5km to go, and the gap hovering at 20 seconds, it became clear there would be no anticipated battle between Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, no sprint between Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan. For the second consecutive year, there would be no Belgian winner.
Instead, a relatively obscure Italian with no pro victories to his name would emerge as champion, the youngest winner since Tom Boonen took the first of three Flanders titles back in 2005.
“Bettiol was the strongest on the Oude Kwaremont and still rode solo atop the Paterberg,” said Benoot, who finished ninth. “The tailwind to Oudenaarde was also to his advantage. We did not take it slow in the chasing group, but it was difficult to cooperate. And with that, Bettiol could hold on to his advantage. I tried to attack, but Langeveld immediately jumped on my wheel. A lot of riders are on a high level, which makes it difficult to create some gaps. But if you solo away like him, it may seem like a surprise, but he certainly deserves it.”
ASGREEN: THE STRONGEST RIDER ON THE STRONGEST TEAM
Find me someone who predicted that Kasper Asgreen would finish the Tour of Flanders on the podium. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Like Bettiol, the 24-year-old Dane came to the Tour of Flanders without a pro victory to his name. Like Van der Poel, it was his Flanders debut.
Unlike Bettiol and Van der Poel, Asgreen was not a team leader; rather he was very solidly placed in a support role on a team that was most favored to win the race.
Perhaps Asgreen’s biggest result came on home soil, when he won the 2017 U23 European time trial championship ahead of compatriot Mikkel Bjerg. Still, his performances caught the eye of Quick-Step team management, which signed him over from Team Virtu Cycling in April of last year. Last summer, Asgreen rode the Vuelta a España in support of Spaniard Enric Mas, who finished second overall; he was also a member of Quick-Step’s winning team at the World Team Time Trial Championships in Innsbruck.
Deceuninck-Quick Step entered the Tour of Flanders with four riders believed to be capable of winning, including 2017 champion Philippe Gilbert, recent E3 BinckBank Classic winner Zdenek Stybar, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne winner Bob Jungels, and two-time Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Yves Lamapert, the Belgian national champion.
Asgreen, along with Tim Declercq and Iljo Keisse, were the team’s support riders. They rode at the front to keep the day’s first breakaway of four riders within reach, and then, after the race came back together on the flat roads between the Muur-Kapelmuur and Kanarieberg, Asgreen jumped away from the field with 50 kilometers to go, following a dangerous move by Vanmarcke and Stijn Vandenbergh (Ag2r La Mondiale), who were later joined by Dylan Van Baarle (Team Sky).
Those four riders constituted the front of the field as they approached the race’s final climbs, the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. But they were caught on the Kwaremont, where Bettiol made his move, which he eventually carried to the line.
“When Bettiol passed me, it was impossible to follow, so I just tried to hang in there with the main group,” Asgreen said.
By then, however, Quick-Step’s tactics had changed. Gilbert, who had a stomach illness last week, had lost contact. Stybar, the fastest finisher the team had left, was dropped on the Kruisberg with 27km remaining. Jungels and Lampaert were still in the first chase group, but neither is a fast finisher, eliminating, to a large degree, the efficacy of the type of long-range solo attack that saw the team win with Niki Terpstra last year, and Gilbert two years ago.
Ultimately, however, it seemed that Jungels and Lampaert simply had nothing left to give; they finished last out of that front group, in 16th and 17th place.
In the final kilometers, though victory was out of reach, Asgreen attacked again and maintained his gap on the flat run-in to Oudenaarde, soloing to second place. In a field of 175 starters, including world champions and four former Flanders winners, only one rider had been better than Asgreen.
“As we approached the finish and I still had something left in the legs,” Asgreen said. “I decided to attack and pressed on, seeing that there was some daylight between me and the others. Second is a huge result for my career, one that surprises me, but also a step in the right direction, which feeds my confidence ahead of the next races.”
VAN DER POEL: ‘NO SENSE THINKING ABOUT WHAT WOULD’VE HAPPENED’
He didn’t win the race — or even finish on the podium — but it’s possible more viewers will remember Mathieu van der Poel’s performance than that of the winner.
Van der Poel came into the Tour of Flanders as a big favorite, somewhat unusual considering he’d never raced it before. But his performances at the lead-up races was enough to bolster his odds — he won GP de Denain with a solo breakaway before finishing an impressive fourth at Gent-Wevelgem, his WorldTour debut, and then going on to win a five-rider sprint at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
However Van der Poel’s race appeared to be over when he crashed heavily with 60km to go, clutching his shoulder on the ground and wincing in pain. It was just before the first Kwaremont-Paterberg combination, where Vanmarcke went up the road with Vandenbergh and Asgreen. With adrenaline firing, and a new bike under his legs, Van der Poel went on a rampage, catching and passing the remnants of the peloton. After 14km spent chasing, he was back on over the Koppenberg with 46km to go.
“I wanted to avoid a flower box just before my fall, but I jumped into the flower box and immediately broke my wheel,” Van der Poel told Sporza. “Then, I hit a small hole in the sidewalk, my wheel broke completely, and I went over. That hurt a little.
“After that I drove for half an hour to fight myself back in the race. Only when I descended the Koppenberg did I get back to the people. I felt I was quickly recovering. It gave me a lot of morale to be on the climbs with the best.”
Given the time lost, and energy expended, it’s quite possible Van der Poel was the strongest rider in the race. There he was, with 30km to go, attacking on the Kruisberg ahead of world champion Alejandro Valverde and Olympic champion Greg Van Avemaet. There he was, in perfect position, on the final ascent of the Paterberg, though he told media gathered outside his team bus that he thought he was still racing for the victory until 5km from the line.
“I thought I reached the top of the Paterberg in the lead,” he said. “I didn’t see Bettiol ride away. They had to tell me afterwards. Kristoff was constantly shouting seconds in my ear but I thought that was the gap we had on the chasers. It’s only at that moment that I saw one rider ahead of us in the distance. There wasn’t anything else I would do. I was banking on the sprint. Quick-Step had a few riders, and I know that Asgreen is fast so I thought they would ride for him, but apparently not.”
Van der Poel admitted he’d not been in perfect position on the Kwaremont when Bettiol attacked, saying he thought that he would be able to accelerate to the front when necessary, but adding that his position cost him the opportunity to mark the winning move.
“Even with the crash, I think that I would’ve been able to go with Bettiol if I would’ve been more to the front of the group on the Oude Kwaremont,” Van der Poel said. “I just didn’t see him go. The race would’ve been different, so it doesn’t make sense to keep thinking about what would’ve happened.”
Still, race fans could only be left wondering what might have been. They’ll likely wonder the same at next weekend’s Paris-Roubaix — Van der Poel is not racing, instead choosing to compete at the Amstel Gold Race, his nation’s biggest event, in the tricolor of Dutch national champion. From there he’ll resume his mountain-bike racing season in preparation for the 2020 Olympic Games.
“I am now leaving for Circuit Cycliste Sarthe stage race, to prepare myself for the Brabantse Pijl and the Amstel,” Van der Poel said. “That is also something new. And after that, the adventure is over.”
Perhaps, but for Van der Poel, as well as Bettiol and Asgreen, it seems as though the adventures across the cobbled hills of West Flanders are just beginning.