A Few Key Moments Decided the Tour of Flanders

Breaking down the key moments that created a thrilling win at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday

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 was the faster sprinter on paper, but Asgreen 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.

Race Notes:

66km: Crash right in the middle of the peloton. Favorites down like Julian Alaphilippe and a ton of DQS riders. Asgreen goes down and is potentially now out of the race.

61km: Julian Alaphilippe slows down to pee, likely to slow down the peloton to allow his teammates to catch back on (who is going to attack the World Champion while he pees?). Asgreen catches back on after a difficult chase. He had to catch on a few kilometers before the Kwaremont and he does. This saves his race.

54km: Van der Poel attacks over the top the Oude Kwaremont, which is an underrated part of the course and where many moves have gone over the years. He gets a big gap with Asgreen. This is really impressive since Asgreen just had long chase onto the peloton after a crash.

53km: With so much firepower left in the chase group, this was never going to be the winning move, but Wout has to come to the front and shut this move down by himself. This shows that he is completely isolated from his team and in turn, he has to burn valuable matches. Also, at Flanders, once you are closing down gaps instead of creating them, you are in trouble.

51km: When they take the penultimate trip over the Paterberg, Asgreen attacks and takes Van der Poel with him. We know at this point that these are clearly the two strongest riders in the race, and that Wout, who once again has to chase, is just a step behind and off his best.

37km: As they hit the Taaienberg, the favorites have pulled back Alaphilippe after a he forced a gap over the Koppenberg a few kms before. Marco Haller has ridden off the front before the climb, and once again, Asgreen attacks with Van der Poel following. Van der Poel then takes the lead and drills it. He looks great while Asgreen looks under pressure for the first time. Wout is able to respond this time, although he looks on the limit, with Alaphilippe on his wheel.

32km: A chase group with riders like Van Avermaet, Dylvan Van Baarle and Sepp Vanmarcke are getting closer to the leaders, with the gap down to 12-seconds from 20 just a kilometer earlier, but we are approaching the final three climbs, which are crushing. It is hard, if not impossible, to chase back to the leaders and then make it up and over on those climbs. 

29km: The gap is down to 11-seconds, but even a few seconds at the base of the Kruisberg is too much. They have to close it down now or they will never make it.

28km: Alaphilipe attacks at the top of the climb, but it is very telegraphed, everyone responds and he is easily pulled back. You can see his teammate Asgreen is sitting on the front when he attacks, which potentially serves as a screen for Alaphilippe, but Wout is already responding and not giving Alaphilippe any daylight.

27km: Anthony Turgis attacks from the chase group and bridges up to the leaders absurdly fast. This is really impressive, but it continues the trend of Turgis missing the move and being forced to use his strength to chase rather than attack.

After the group has been softened up by Alaphilippe, Asgreen attacks while the others are going over to the right side of the road to get refreshments from team staffers. Asgreen flying and is yet again joined by Van der Poel and Van Aert. We know at this point that Asgreen is serious about making this the winning move because he is immediately flicking his elbow to them to pull through even though his teammate, Alaphilippe, is stuck behind.

27km: If we look in the background of the gif above, the only rider leading the chase is Turgis, who just made a huge effort to bridge up. There is no way he can match their pace and it shows his major weakness. If he was in the front group, he could have used his big effort to go with the three leaders instead of using the same move just to catch up right before the race-winning move goes.

26km: Once Asgreen sees he isn’t getting rid of Wout and MvdP, he likely gets orders from the team through his earpiece to stop working. We can see Wout taking issue with this, but this is all theatrics since Asgreen doesn’t have much of a choice here and the fact that Wout is even wasting the energy tells us he probably isn’t feeling great at this point. MvdP is not engaging and forging on ahead, which shows us he is solely focused on getting to Kwaremont and dropping both riders.

20km: The gap back to the Alaphilippe group has balooned to 22-seconds even with Asgreen is now sitting on due to team orders.

18km: The leading trio is just riding tempo on the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont. Asgreen is leading, so either the team orders have changed or his earpiece “isn’t working.” On paper, Asgreen has to attack here and drop Wout and MvdP if he wants to win, but if we look at their faces, Asgreen looks comfortable and is breathing through his nose at the hardest point of the race while Wout and MvdP look like they are suffering.

17km: The section directly following the Kwaremont is often where the winning moves, not on the actual climb, and right on cue, MvdP attacks here. He’s flying and drops both Wout and Asgreen. This looks almost exactly like Alberto Bettiol’s winning attack from 2019 and if Asgreen isn’t careful, the win will disappear up the road right here.

17km-Cont’d: Asgreen actually pulls MvdP back on the rolling, long section after the Kwaremont, which is always key and this is where Asgreen wins the race. Unlike the lap before, Wout can’t make the junction here as the last 48kms of racing have taken their toll.

13km: Asgreen and MvdP only have 7-seconds on Wout when they hit the base of the final climb, the Paterberg, but any gap at the base is almost impossible to overcome. MvdP tries to use the smoother pavement in the gutter to attack Asgreen.

But MvdP can’t force a gap and as they hit the impossibly steep final section, it is clear that Asgreen is actually stronger.

12km: The two leaders crest the climb together and Asgreen starts working with MvdP, and at the moment, I thought this was a huge mistake since MvdP is the faster finisher and will just beat Asgreen at the line.

8.8km: Van Aert is caught by the chase group, which is around 25-seconds behind the two leaders. He starts stirring the pot/attacking, which shows us panic is setting in.

5km: Asgreen keeps taking hard pulls, which stems the losses and holds the gap at 24-seconds. It is now clear they won’t get pulled back but Asgreen has a hard decision to make. Does he call MvdP’s bluff and start to ‘sit on’ and conserve energy for the sprint? Or does he trust that he is stronger and keep the pace high to avoid giving MvdP a reason to attack, which would disrupt the pace and allow the chasers to catch on.

2km: The chase group is arguing and GVA attacks. He gets away clear and a podium here would be big for him and his AG2R team.

1km: Asgreen starts sitting on, MvdP doesn’t like it and slows down, which, in theory, helps him due to his superior acceleration.

250m: Asgreen doesn’t panic and waits until he thinks he is within striking distance to open his sprint. MvdP responds strongly and looks to have the upper hand, but then falls apart in the final 50 meters while Asgreen pulls ahead.

Final Top-Ten

The Good

  • Wow, what a win. Agreen had so much confidence in himself all day and the long sprint showed he knew he was stronger than MvdP. 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 a 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.

  • Anthony Turgis finishes 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.

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 selection.

  • Thirdly, his ability to claw his way back to Van der Poel after the final ascent of the Kwaremont put him in position to control his own destiny in the final run-in to the finish.

  • 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 despite all of us yelling at the TV for him to stop working with Van der Poel since he was just riding towards getting smoke in a sprint (i.e. Niki Terpstra in 2015)

In Hindsight

  • 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 actually worked better than the trademark ‘swarm’ tactic. They’ve now won a hugely impressive 9 out of the last 20 editions of Flanders and Team Manager Patrick Lefevere adds more evidence to the case that he is the best Cobbled race manager of all time.

  • 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 Asgreen’s 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 he was isolating Wout and MvdP with him, not the other way around, and gave him a more straightforward final over the two final climbs and the sprint finish.

  • If Asgreen doesn’t get out ahead of Alaphilippe, 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.

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 Flanders 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 much better than I expected for the long period of January through March.

  • But being outsprinted being a “slower” rider 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 and MvdP was entertaining himself by ripping Kuurne to pieces. Asgreen timed this perfectly and if Paris-Roubaix was running as originally planned this coming Sunday, he would 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 and 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.

  • Also, he only has two career 200+km 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, 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 sprint more than pure strength. We are potentially starting to see that there might be a reason why other riders don’t attempt to compete as both a stage racer and Classics contender in the same season.

Keep an eye out for the new bonus Women’s Flanders breakdown later today/early tomorrow…