Flanders Breakdown, Giro Stage 16 & Vuelta Stage 1 Preview

The Tour of Flanders rings in a new era for the Spring Classics

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The Tour of Flanders (or Ronde van Vlaanderen) the biggest and best one-day race in the sport took place yesterday, and it delivered the highly anticipated Mathieu van der Poel versus Wout van Aert duel. Van der Poel walked away with his first Monument win in a photo-finish sprint between the two stars. The reigning World Champion, Julian Allaphillipe, made the initial selection with the two riders but crashed out of the race after riding into a motorcycle.

The duel was fascinating to watch and it was great to see the new stars flex some serious muscle on the challenging parcours, but the absence of Allaphillipe in the finale really hurt the excitement of the race. I couldn’t help but feel MvdP and Wout van Aert were so much better than the rest while being so equal in skill and fitness to each other that it blunted the excitement of the race (yes, I realize it’s crazy to complain about riders being too good).

The race went ahead despite an overwhelming amount of new COVID cases in Belgium, but the race organizers did a fantastic job of discouring fans from coming out to watch the race and the lack of fans really let the beautiful fall Flanders landscape shine.

Tomorrow sees the 16th stage of the Giro d’Italia and the start of the Spanish grand tour, the Vuelta a Espana, which sports a very impressive start list. This is completely crazy and way too many overlapping races, but I will do my best to stay on top of everything.

Flanders Race Notebook:

45km-The peloton comes into the brutally steep Koppenberg climb altogether, but we can see Julian Allaphillipe preparing for an attack at the front of the back on the right side of the photo.

45km-The attack works and by the top of the short but steep climb, Allaphillipe and Anthony Turgis are clear, but we can see MvdP chasing behind with Bettiol. Wout van Aert and Oliver Naesen, both of whom responded to the initial attack, have been distanced slightly and are chasing behind. This failure to hold wheels on the Koppenberg makes me wonder if there is a very slight issue with Wout’s form.

39km-Despite the chaos caused by the Koppenberg, a group of 20-ish riders forms a few kilometers later. Allaphillipe once again attacks and MvdP immediately responds. The on-screen graphic shows he averaged 560 watts on the Koppenberg climb (probably a 60-second effort), which means heavier riders like MvdP must have put out over 700 watts. This shows you how absurdly hard the ride these short climbs and the raw power it takes to compete in these races.

38km-Allaphillipe and van der Poel hit the base of the Taaienberg climb about 3-seconds in front of a chasing van Aert, who was recognized that this is the winning move and he has to get across the gap at any cost. Van der Poel is drilling it on the front but van Aert still catches back on, this is incredibly impressive.

37km-We can see that gap to the peloton isn’t big, but this race is over, the three at the front are the three strongest in the race and it will be contested between them.

After bridging up solo, van Aert takes a turn on the front. This seems insane but he likely knows that the next few minutes will decide the race.

MvdP nearly crashes out Allaphillipe after taking a high-speed bottle feed from the side of the road. Allaphillipe dodges disaster here but this foreshadows things to come.

The gap is only at 7-seconds to the chasing peloton, but there isn’t any real cohesion or motivation to chase.

36km-Last year’s winner, Alberto Bettiol gets clear of the peloton with a small chase group with FDJ’s Valentin Madouas, but they have two DQS riders sitting on the back acting as anchors for Allaphillipe. These guys can chase all the want, but this front group is gone.

35km-As we were heading towards one of the most exciting finishes of the Tour of Flanders in recent memory, Allaphillipe’s race is instantly ruined when he runs into the moto of a race commissar. There was a lot of blame thrown at the moto, but we can clearly see that van Aert was drafting the moto (which is illegal) and pulled out of the slipstream at the last second when it starts to pull over to stop the drafting. Van der Poel narrowing misses it, but Allaphillipe, who is on his race radio, is completely unaware and runs into the moto.

32km-Normally, if a break of three at the front of the biggest one-day race lost a World Champion, they would be in peril of being reeled in by the chasing group, but what is amazing here is that Wout and van der Poel actually start to increase their lead on the chasing group after Allaphillipe goes down.

28km-Wout and MvdP have pulled their lead out to 41-seconds from 33-seconds just four kilometers prior. These guys are poetry in motion on their bikes. They both exude raw, seemingly endless power married with picture-perfect form.

18km-The leader’s gap is out to 1’21 as they hit the base of the penultimate climb, the Oude Kwaremont. The final two climbs of this race, Oude Kwaremont, and the Paterberg, while not being particularly long, are some of the hardest sections if all of pro cycling, and they always shatter the group before the final flat 12km to the finish, but MvdP and Wout ride up the Kwaremont with an ease I’ve never witnessed before. It is truly stunning and impressive (I do think the modern gearing that riders just a few years ago didn’t have access to helps immensely) and it is a pleasure to get to witness two of the most talented riders to ever race. But, it is a little disappointing that they were both so good that they don’t even bother attacking each other on these pitches, since they both know it is useless to try to drop the other.

17km-Oliver Naesen attacks and gets clear of the peloton on the brutal false flat following the steep section.

14km-MvdP and Wout basically ride tempo between the Kwaremont and Paterberg. This is usually the most decisive 3km in pro cycling but these guys just tap out 350 watts like they are commuting to work.

13km- They get to the Paterberg and once again, they fly up one of the hardest sections in the sport like it is a highway overpass. Wout has the more classically beautiful position on the bike while MvdP has a little bit of bob, but what MvdP gives up in aesthetics he makes up for with a sense of coiled athleticism. My jaw hits the floor watching them destroy the Paterberg.

9km-Naesen has a valiant effort off the front but he caught after by the chase group on the flat section to the finish after they descend off the Paterberg.

Final km-The chasing group is rapidly closing in on the leaders after they slow down to jockey for position, but our two leaders likely aren’t that worried. MvdP, the less tactically astute of the two riders, gets pushed into a vulnerable position on the front. He is forced to ride along the barriers to block Wout from going over his right shoulder and has to obsessively look over his left shoulder to make sure Wout doesn’t jump early.

200 meters-Tired of waiting to be ambushed, MvdP launches his sprint first and goes for an absurdly long, 15-second effort.

Amazingly, he holds off a surging Wout and wins Flanders, a 250km race, by a few centimeters. Check out MvdP’s bike throw, the tip of his saddle is nearly touching his chin while Wout isn’t as extended, and that is the winning margin. We talked about this after Stage 13 of the Giro, but this shows yet again how important a bike throw can be.

Major Takeaways:

  • Let me preface this by saying it was truly amazing to watch two of the most talented riders I’ve ever seen race bikes go head-to-head at the sport’s biggest one-day race. However, I personally felt the level of the top two riders was so high that it almost blunted some of the drama we normally get in the final 20-kilometers.

  • Allaphillipe’s aggression made the race and his tragic premature exit certainly played part in the slightly anti-climatic final 20-kilometers. If he wouldn’t have crashed, I think he potentially could have attacked on either the Kwaremont or Paterberg (or knowing him, likely both) and could have leveraged the intense rivalry between MvdP and Wout to his advantage.

  • Speaking of Allaphillipe, this was his first-time racing Flanders and he a legit chance to win the race on his first try, which almost unheard of. However, this is the second Monument he could have won in the World Champions jersey that he wasn’t able to due to a mental error (the other being the early celebration at Liege).

  • 45km and 38km to-go was the critical point in the race. At Flanders, missing the critical move by just a few seconds can lose you the race, which is something Naesen experienced. He was right where he needed to be at every point except when Wout bridged with 37km to-go.

  • Alexander Kristoff won the sprint for third place eight seconds behind the two leaders and the big Norweigan must feel great about it. He was never going to make it over the climbs with the two leaders, and his only move was to sit and home the race came back together. He did everything he could and the 2015 winner adds a 5th Monument podium on his Palmares.

  • It is amazing how fast Wout van Aert and MvdP have progressed from inexperienced riders animating the race in 2019 (and finishing 4th and 11th) to looking like all-time greats dominating stars who have spent years specializing in this race.

  • Anthony Turgis from Total Direct Energie coming in 4th is a huge result for him and his small French team.

  • It is wild to imagine that Sunweb’s Tiesj Benoot was seen as the possible Belgian classics star of the future just a few years ago, but Wout and MvdP have come into the sport and completely eclipsed his star power.

Giro Stage 16 Preview

Tomorrow’s Giro stage takes place in the foothills of Fruili, the forgotten but gorgeous Italy region that borders Slovenia. This is being billed as a borderline sprint stage, but I’m not so sure. The stage starts with a hard 10km climb where a breakaway will certainly gain serious time and the finishing circuit features a 3km long climb at 9%, which is similar to the climbs that broke up the race on Stage 13.

  • Something to keep in mind is that Vincenzo Nibali is 3’29 back and in 7th place. The Sicilian doesn’t care about conserving energy for a top ten finish and will launch an all-or-nothing attack at some point. This could be the perfect stage for him to attempt to get into the early breakaway and turn the race on its head.

  • Outside of Nibali, there are a lot of riders who need to make up serious time. I wouldn’t rule out a wild day tomorrow.

  • Prediction: Nibali infiltrates the early break and throws the race into chaos. He is eventually pulled back by Sunweb and Diego Ulissi wins yet another stage while João Almeida holds Pink.

Vuelta a Espana Stage 1

The Spanish grand tour starts with a bang on Tuesday with a hilly race in the Basque region. The start list is actually far superior to the Giro, but this low-key Giro has really grown on me and I’m feeling very protective of the big bad Vuelta coming in and elbowing it out.

  • Jumbo’s dynamic duo of Primož Roglič +125 and Tom Dumoulin +500 are back from their Tour de France disappointment and have to be the huge favorites for the overall win. 

  • However, Ineos’ Richard Carapaz +700 looked great in the final week of the Tour de France, and with only a single 33km TT would be a solid pick for the overall win.

  • Chris Froome is also at the race but considering how poor his form has been, and that he was dropped with 100km to go in the recent Liege, I don’t expect him to play a part.

  • Unlike the Tour de France, tough opening stages at the Vuelta actually see explosive GC racing. I think we will see some pretenders dropped on the final climb.

  • Prediction: Primoz Roglic starts his Vuelta defense with a bang by winning the opening stage. Dumoulin, Mike Wood, and Richard Carapaz are right behind him but Chris Froome is dropped.