The times, they are a-changed for the Classics stars of the past

Is this the end of the road for Sagan, Van Avermaet, and Co.? A new generation of stars shines at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic.

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If ever a song could make the perfect theme tune for a bicycle race, Bob Dylan’s classic “The Times They Are a-Changing” came to mind as the stars of the Flemish Classics waved their way to Harelbeke at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic on Friday. A protest song that became an anthem for the youth of that time, the tune has paradoxically stood the test of time.

The E3, presumably the only bike race named after a motorway, is affectionally known as the mini Ronde van Vlaanderen. That is despite covering 203 km, ascending ten flemish climbs, and being a highly prestigious race in its own right. The first cobbled classic after San Remo, and within ten days of the Ronde, the E3 is a classic every rider wants to win. Nobody goes to the E3 to “train.” So when Wout Van Aert attacked on the Taainenberg with 80km remaining, the race was on, and anyone who could follow would follow. What ensued was seemingly the official changing of the Classics guard.

And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

As the race split, the break was caught, and a select front group established itself. Notable by their absence was the entire class of cobbled specialists of the past decade. Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermat, Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Štybar, all past winners of the E3 missed the move. Classics specialists of the past decade, Bob Jungels, Oliver Naesen, Heinrich Haussler, John Degenkolb, Sep Vanmarcke, and Edvald Boasson Hagan were scattered throughout the chase groups. These riders have won 15 spring classics and monuments between them in the past 10 years, and yet when the dust settled, not one of these stars had made the front group.  

The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’

The order has faded and up front the new generation of classic stars was in no mood for waiting. It may seem odd to characterize Van Aert, Matej Mohorič, and Kasper Asgreen, who won the E3 last year, as the new guard, considering they’ve each won a Monument. Keep in mind, however, that these riders are all just 27 years of age, and if we look specifically at E3, they only made their debut there as recently as 2018. 

Joining these young superstars up front were the even younger Biniam Girmay (21), Jhonatan Navarez (25), Rasmus Tiller (25), Valentin Madouas (25), and Anthony Turgis (27). Tiesj Benoot, Michael Gogl, Florian Sénéchal, and Stefan Kung all made the front group at the ripe old age of 28. One of the oldest in the group was Christophe Laporte, who is still just 29, and who finished second on the day. Only Jasper Stuyen, Dylan Van Baarle and Mike Teunissen in the front group had as many birthdays on the clock as Laporte. Still, not a single rider in the top 15 has yet reached his 30th birthday. 

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again

It’s hard to see where the chance might come again for the stars of the 2010s. The E3 was classic Flemish racing on small roads and steep climbs where positioning and legs are equally important. Experience is seemingly key and older, stronger riders often do well. Yet on Friday, with seemingly no mechanicals or crashes to blame, the dominant forces of the past decade were found wanting. What’s more, you can add 2020 Flanders winner Mathieu van der Poel, Tom Pidcock, a Classics star in the making missing on Friday through illness, and 2019 world champ Mads Pedersen, who rested his legs ahead of Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem, into the mix of under-30 stars.

The elder statesmen of the cobbled peloton will have to hope for a change of fortunes. Each one of them has the class and experience to turn it around for one last win, but it seems the wins are numbered for the favourites of almost every spring one-day of the last decade.

And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

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