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It always sneaks up on us. One minute, it’s the dead of winter in northern Europe, and the next, it’s the heart of Classics season. We’re in the thick of it now, with Driedaagse De Panne-Brugge, E3, and Gent-Wevelgem in the books and the Tour of Flanders less than a week away.
Watching the springtime showdowns in the run-up to the cobblestone Monuments is always a unique pleasure after the long, quiet offseason. It’s also a great way to get a feel for what to look for in the biggest contests, Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
This weekend offered plenty of hints as to what we can expect from the kings of the cobbles as De Ronde looms. And since no fan of cycling needs to be told “Quick-Step looks good for the Classics” – although that is just as true as ever – it’s worth highlighting a few other big takeaways from the past few days of racing in Belgium.
UAE is a legitimate classics team
For a year or two there, it seemed like the springtime magic might be gone for UAE’s marquee Classics signing, Alexander Kristoff. Although the former winner of the Tour of Flanders and Milano-Sanremo has shown flashes of his ability in recent years – winning on the Champs-Élysées is something special – his trademark power at the end of a long day on the bike was lacking in his spring appearances.
It’s hard to overstate how fresh he looked on the Kemmelberg on Sunday, or how convincing he was sprinting to the victory in Wevelgem.
If the Norwegian takes that freshness into next weekend, look out: He has a team too. Sven Erik Bystrom is a versatile compatriot that Kristoff knows he can rely on deep into races. Marco Marcato is the kind of veteran lieutenant every Classics team needs to thrive. And most interestingly, Fernando Gaviria is apparently a real Classics rider.
The Colombian sprint star has always dreamed of evolving into a cobblestone contender. Crashes and injuries have gotten in the way of his planned pavé participations in recent years. A healthy Gaviria, however, gave fans a show at De Panne, joining a breakaway move on the Kemmelberg with 120 kilometers to go. The escapees were caught and Gaviria finished second, but he wasn’t done yet. He jumped into a powerhouse breakaway again at Gent-Wevelgem – allowing Kristoff to play it cool in the peloton behind – to make sure we got the message: Gaviria is not just a tourist in Classics country.
Best of all for UAE, Gaviria and Kristoff have worked together wonderfully so far this year. Kristoff delivered his teammate in textbook fashion for a UAE Tour stage win last month. On Sunday, Gaviria wisely told Kristoff in the final few minutes of the race to take over as the featured sprinter, and it paid off.
With Kristoff as the proven winner and Gaviria as a dangerous foil, UAE will be hungry for more over the next two weeks.
Oliver Naesen can sprint
The emergence of Oliver Naesen as a Classics talent has given Ag2r La Mondiale a bona fide contender for the spring one-days, but while the 28-year-old Belgian has been racking up top 10s, he has not found that extra gear to really go the distance just yet.
His rivals are noticing his speed. In an off-mic comment after Gent-Wevelgem, Kristoff said, “You’re a sprinter now, eh?” Naesen responded, “Only in the wheels.” He may not have the speed to win a bunch sprint, but a reduced group win seems within his grasp.
A runner-up ride at Milano-Sanremo and a third-place finish in a bunch sprint at Gent-Wevelgem may shed some light on Naesen’s potential path to a pavé victory.
In Sanremo, Naesen picked the right wheel to follow on the Via Roma, tailing Julian Alaphilippe as the Frenchman opened up his kick. Alaphilippe proved too fast for Naesen to come around, but Naesen held on to take second after nearly 300 kilometers on the bike. Crossing the line in Sanremo ahead of the fast-finishing Michal Kwiatkowski and Peter Sagan is nothing to sneeze at.
The Gent-Wevelgem finale had its own field of speedsters. Again, Naesen settled for a podium performance, this time behind Kristoff and John Degenkolb, but the worthwhile takeaway here is that he beat 30 other guys on the finishing straight at the end of a tough day.
Naesen has proven that he has the climbing legs and the grinta to go deep into the finales in the cobbled Classics. Now, he should be confident that he has what it takes to hold his own in a fast finish. Does that mean he’ll be winning on the Champs-Élysées this July? Of course not. But if he can hang with the leaders at De Ronde and follow a Vanmarcke or Niki Terpstra move late in the day, he might just find himself in a small group contesting a huge win as the sneaky favorite for a sprint.
Van Aert and van der Poel have arrived
Road fans have been excited about the prospect of seeing cyclocross stars Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel doing battle on the cobblestones for years. The wait is over.
What’s more, the former and the reigning ‘cross champs have wasted no time in shedding the “up-and-comers” label. They are both legitimate Classics contenders.
Van Aert already has one cobbled campaign under his belt, having finished third at Strade Bianche, 10th at Gent-Wevelgem, and ninth in Flanders last year. He proved in his return to Strade Bianche this March that he is here to stay as a road racer, with another third-place finish. Then he went to Milano-Sanremo and made it clear that he was one of the strongest riders on the day, joining Alaphilippe in his initial attack on the Poggio and chasing down Matteo Trentin in the finale.
His E3 performance was his most impressive yet, as he found himself in a powerhouse finishing group alongside the likes of Zdenek Stybar and Greg Van Avermaet, and sprinted to second. He was in the thick of it yet again at Gent-Wevelgem, getting into the early break and staying active after being reabsorbed by the pack. Van Aert is a legitimate threat to win a cobbled Classic, particularly now that he has WorldTour-level support around him at Jumbo-Visma.
Speaking of his team, you have to hand it to the Dutch squad. When they let Sep Vanmarcke walk at the end of 2016, it wasn’t clear how they would stay in the mix in the Classics, but Van Aert is the ascending star of the moment.
Van der Poel’s road resume is much shorter than Van Aert’s, as this is his first proper Classics campaign, but the early returns have been great.
When he was caught up in a crash at Nokere Koerse, it seemed like van der Poel’s Classics campaign might be over before it really began, but the 24-year-old Corendon-Circus rider had other plans. After he was cleared of any serious injury, van der Poel returned to the road the next day to preview the Tour of Flanders parcours. The day after that, he went out and won the GP Denain.
Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem was van der Poel’s first ever appearance in a WorldTour race, and he took advantage of that opportunity as well. He was in that early break too (of course) and then had enough energy left after the long day to finish fourth in the sprint.
The Tour of Flanders itself is a different ballgame, but there’s little reason to believe van der Poel won’t step up his game to meet the challenge. He and Van Aert have been hard at work these past few weeks proving that, somehow, they are just as comfortable racing for six hours as they are for one.
We won’t have long to wait to see van Aert and van der Poel – and Kristoff and Gaviria and Naesen – in action again.
Stock up on the beer and frites: De Ronde is just around the corner.