Race Breakdown: The Tour of Flanders came up to all expectations, but ‘The Big Three’ of Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and World champion Julian Alaphilippe were usurped by Danish champion, Kasper Asgreen. Spencer Martin breaks down Sunday’s De Ronde pedal stroke by pedal stroke.
Top performance for Kasper Asgreen
Kasper Asgreen shocked the big-name favorites on Sunday by winning the Tour of Flanders in a thrilling head-to-head sprint against the defending champion, Mathieu van der Poel. The duo emerged as the strongest riders in the race on the penultimate ascent of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg with only 50-kilometers remaining, and it was only a matter of time before they shed the rest of the contenders and battled it out amongst themselves. Last year’s runner-up and the favorite in the betting markets, Wout van Aert, initially made the elite selection after Asgreen forced the issue in a feed-zone with 27-kilometer remaining, but the Belgian superstar was dropped by a Van der Poel attack on the false-flat following the final ascent of the Kwaremont.
Van der Poel’s attack
Van der Poel was the faster sprinter on paper, but this didn’t seem to faze Asgreen, who didn’t hesitate to work with him as they worked to hold off the chasers in the final flat 10-kilometers. Inside the final kilometer, Asgreen stuck to Van der Poel’s wheel, and the two duked it out in a straight-up drag race when Asgreen launched his sprint with 250-meters remaining. Initially, Van der Poel responded with superior speed and looked to have the victory in hand until Asgreen found a late surge and overcame a fading Van der Poel in the final 50 meters to get the biggest win of his career and announce himself as a bonafide Cobbled Classics star.
‘…but the Belgian superstar was dropped’
- Wow, what a win. Asgreen had so much confidence in himself all day and the long sprint showed he knew he was stronger than Van der Poel. Asgreen has been telling those willing to listen that he is one of the strongest Classics riders in the world with his performances. His solo performance at E3 9-days before Flanders was sign that he could go pedal-stroke-to-pedal-stroke with the best in the world and come out on top.
- Some might be wondering where Asgreen came from, but remember, he has been quietly building his strength and Cobbled Classics CV for years. He finished 2nd at Flanders in 2019, won Kuurne in 2020, and won last week’s E3 with an impressive display of pure strength.
- His composure in the finale was impressive, he launched the sprint at the perfect time; not so far that Van der Poel was able to follow him and come around once he faded, but not so close that he didn’t have time to come around the weaker Van der Poel.
- However, the most impressive thing of the day is that Asgreen didn’t win this race due to superior tactics or a stronger team, he was flat-out the strongest rider in the race on the day. There is nothing Van der Poel, Van Aert of Van Avermaet could have done to beat him.
- I was worried that Deceuninck – QuickStep’s financial uncertainty for the coming season could affect their in-race teamwork, and it kind of did. Asgreen dumped his teammate to ride clear with two of the best riders in the world. This isn’t exactly how you would draw it up on the team bus, but it ultimately didn’t matter and it actually worked out better for them than their trademark “swarm” strategy. They’ve now won a hugely impressive 9 out of the last 20 editions of Flanders.
- Anthony Turgis finished 8th despite riding on a second-division French team and expending a huge amount of energy to bridge up to the leaders with 28km-to-go. He is having a breakout year and proved he is physically capable of winning a major Classic if he is on a stronger team.
- Greg van Avermaet’s third place on the day marked one of the best-ever career Flanders, and if Asgreen and Van der Poel weren’t present, it isn’t hard to imagine him winning the day with his attack in the final 2-kilometers. Unfortunately, the 35-year-old Flanderian misses yet another chance to win his home ground Monument with precious few chances remaining.
What could have been for Van Avermaet
Where it Was Won
Looking back, there were a few key moments to Asgreen’s winning ride:
- First, catching back on before the penultimate ascent of the Kwaremont with 55km-to-go was absolutely key. If he doesn’t make the junction before the climb, he never makes it back to the front group and is out of the race.
- Secondly, his attack in the mini-feed zone with 27km-to-go forced the winning move and thirdly, his ability to claw his way back to Van der Poel after the final ascent of the Kwaremont was essentially the winning move.
- Once he was even with Van der Poel for the final 15kms, he was able to feel confident that his ability to out-power Van der Poel on the steep climbs would allow him to win the sprint.
Asgreen was there when it mattered
- It isn’t a coincidence that Asgreen’s biggest results have come on the cobblestones. He is extremely skilled at riding over them, which allows him to conserve energy relative to his competition and use that banked energy to beat them in the finale.
- I said in December that Asgreen would be a threat for Wout and MvdP due to his ability to have a singular focus on the Classics and I’m sure the ability to go away to a training camp and build up slowly really helped.
- When it happened, I thought the attack with 27km-to-go was foolhardy, since it just isolated him with two (I thought) stronger/faster riders and stranded his team leader, Alaphilippe, behind. But in retrospect, this was a very savvy move, since it isolated Wout and MvdP with him, and gave him a more straightforward final two climbs and sprint finish.
- If Asgreen hadn’t gotten ahead of Alaphilippe at that point, he likely has to lead him out in the sprint finish, which he wouldn’t have won. The way the race unfolded was the perfect way for Deceuninck – QuickStep, and if it stays together, Asgreen possibly doesn’t have a chance to win in the sprint.
Wout in trouble
What we Learned
- On that note, I’ve been banging the drum in recent days that the Van der Poel we’ve seen in the past few weeks isn’t the same rider we saw destroying races earlier in the year. Some well-respected cycling podcasters have pushed back on this theory and I’ve even heard that Van der Poel would have beaten Asgreen if the course finished on the same uphill finish as Strade, but I don’t buy this. Van der Poel physically couldn’t pedal in the final 50 meters and just ran out of gas. If this was an uphill finish, Asgreen would have won by a handful of seconds.
- On the other hand, a second place at Flanders certainly isn’t a collapse. Despite looking off-his-best, Van der Poel held his form together better than I expected for the long period of January through March.
- But being out-sprinted by Asgreen shows how important the timing of a rider’s fitness is key throughout the spring. At Omloop and Kuurne six weeks ago, Asgreen was 49th and 34th, while the winners of those races, Davide Ballerini and Mads Pedersen both failed to finish on Sunday. If Paris-Roubaix was running as originally planned this coming Sunday, he’d be my favorite to make the historic double-up.
- With Van der Poel’s Spring road season over, we have to wonder if a stage win at UAE Tour, two stages of Tirreno, and a win at Strade-Bianche are what he, his sponsors expected from him. They pushed in millions of Euros in additional funding for 2021 to bag major wins, but instead of Tom Boonen, his career in the Spring Monuments is following the trajectory of Peter Sagan, who never racked up a serious amount of repeat Monument wins due to being consistently beaten by DQS’s leader-by-committee strategy.
- It is worth noting that he only has two career 200+ kilometer one-day victories so far in his career. It is likely too early to draw any real conclusions, but outside of Amstel in 2019 and Flanders in 2020, a trend of fading at the end of longer one-day races is starting to emerge.
- If Van der Poel looked a little off on Sunday, Van Aert missed the mark by a mile. It was shocking to see a rider who appeared to be emerging as one of the best one-day and most versatile riders in the world in 2020 being straight up dropped in the final 20kms on Sunday. We got a sneak preview of this vulnerability at E3, and even his win at Gent-Wevelgem was due to patience, tactics, and his superior sprint more than pure Classics strength. One has to wonder if his wide-ranging race schedule and attempt to race as both a stage racer and Classics rider in the same season is catching up with him.
What did we learn?
# Spencer Martin is the author of the cycling-analysis newsletter Beyond the Peloton that breaks down the nuances of each race and answers big picture questions surrounding team and rider performance. Sign up now to get full access to all the available content and race breakdowns. #