Friday Shorts: E3 Classic Key Takeaways
Plus, what today's Volta Catalunya summit finish tells us about the looming Primož Roglič/Remco Evenepoel Giro d'Italia showdown
Less than a week after his disappointing defeat at Milano-Sanremo, Wout van Aert turned the tables on his rivals Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogačar when he won today’s thrilling edition of the E3 Saxo Classic. Van Aert leveraged superior strategy and focus to win a three-up sprint between the sport’s best riders after 200 kilometers of all-out racing where he appeared physically outmatched on the race’s numerous short climbs.
The event, known as a mini-Tour of Flanders, generally serves as a bellwether for the sport’s biggest one-day event and will give Van Aert, who was able to best his two biggest rivals en route to his second win at the event for the second year in a row, confidence that he can beat them again when they face off next weekend at the main event. However, Tadej Pogačar, who appeared to be the strongest rider on the day, will take solace in the fact that when they meet again in nine days’ time, the course will finally suit him more than the parcours of Sanremo and E3, and that Van der Poel and Van Aert will have their hands full on attempting to hold his wheel through the brutal final 55 kilometers of the race.
But no matter what happens at Flanders, the fact that we get to see the sport’s best riders going head-to-head across multiple one-day classics is truly incredible and means we are in a golden age of top-level racing where the strongest riders, regardless of their specialty, are competing for wins across nearly the entire calendar.
E3 Top Ten
1) Wout van Aert +0
2) Mathieu van der Poel +0
3) Tadej Pogačar +0
4) Matteo Jorgenson +33
5) Ivan Garcia Cortina +44
6) Stefan Küng +56
7) Matej Mohorič +56
8) Valentin Madouas +1’25
9) Søren Kragh Andersen +1’31
10) Filippo Ganna +1’31
E3 Race Notebook:
80.7km: When the race hits the Taaienberg (aka the Boonenberg), Mathieu van der Poel explodes up the climb in an attempt to neutralize Wout van Aert’s Jumbo team’s numerical advantage by blowing up the peloton. He is closely marked by Wout van Aert, but the move is successful in catching out Tadej Pogacar.
77.8km: Pogacar quickly gets to the front and wastes no time in pulling even with the front group. We know he is serious about winning this race and is feeling good because he pulls a massive group with him without worrying about others sucking his wheel.
66.6km: Jumbo still has three riders in the front group, but when Van der Poel’s teammate Søren Kragh Andersen attacks, there is slight hesitation from the Jumbo trio and we can even see Van Aert getting on the race radio, likely to ask the team car what they should do.
64.4km: Jumbo’s Nathan Van Hooydonck, followed by Matej Mohoric, eventually pulls even with Kragh Andersen.
57.7km: On the following climb, Van der Poel again explodes away from the peloton with Van Aert glued to his wheel. Pogacar once again misses out and is forced to scramble behind. The pace is so high that they close the gap to the lead Hooydonck, Mohoric, and Andersen group in a matter of seconds.
42.8km: Pogacar, now in a group where his two biggest rivals each have teammates and he is isolated, works to remedy this by getting to the front on the Paterberg and lifts the pace to a level that only Van Aert and Van der Poel can match. While the dropped riders claw their way back on after the climb, Pogacar has shown that he can and will drop them on the climbs between now and the finish line.
39.1km: And sure enough, Pogacar lifts the pace again on the Oude Kwaremont. Not only does he yet again drop Hooydonck, Mohoric, and Kragh Andersen, but he starts to distance Van Aert.
38.7-38.5km: After being distanced by Pogačar’s pace, Van Aert saves his race by continuing a high and steady pace that gets him back on Van der Poel’s wheel towards the top of the climb. This is the moment he wins the race, since with the challenging climbs behind them, now all he has to do is rotate through with the two others and wait for the sprint finish.
1.3km: Pogačar, knowing he can’t win a straight-up sprint against Van Aert/Van der Poel, attempts to get away clean via an attack with just over a km to go. Note that Van der Poel immediately responds, which allows Van Aert to stay comfortably in his draft.
250m: Pogacar opens up a long sprint in a last-ditch effort to catch the others off-guard. Van der Poel, who has ceded the far superior third-wheel position to Van Aert, again responds. Van Aert, knowing that Van der Poel struggles in long sprint efforts, wastes no time in launching his sprint.
Finish: Van Aert is able to build his pace through the long 14-second sprint effort while Van der Poel is unable to match and is forced to sit up in the final few meters. Van Aert gets his second straight E3 win, Van der Poel gets 2nd and Pogačar 3rd, while young American Matteo Jorgenson gets an impressive 4th place after clipping off the front of the strong chase group 33 seconds behind.
1) Wout van Aert won this race because he was willing to lose it
In stark contrast to last Saturday at Milano-Sanremo, Van Aert appeared completely relaxed and as if he cared least about the victory out of the three riders at the front.
The lack of energy he expended closing down gaps and attacking during the race due to this lack of pressure and stress is likely why he won since he simply had to follow wheels and make sure he was never closing gaps for others or being caught with his nose in the wind until the final few hundred meters of the race. Van Aert proved today that in order to win a race, you have to be ready to lose it.
It is possible that this more conservative and smarter racing style derived from necessity since Pogačar and Van der Poel’s pace on the climbs meant that Van Aert could only follow and wait for the sprint.
While this could be the reason for Van Aert’s new-found tactical savvy, he likely learned a valuable lesson today that he could deploy in nine days at the Tour of Flanders.
Van Aert’s hyper-focus through the final 80 kilometers extended to the final kilometer, where he didn’t leave Van der Poel’s wheel until he launched his sprint. Also, he clearly did his homework and opted for a long sprint effort against Van der Poel, who becomes more vulnerable the longer sprint effort (See: 2021 Tour of Flanders & 2022 Giro d’Italia Stage 10), instead of attempting to match his initial explosion as he did at the recent CX Worlds.
2) Mathieu van der Poel was strong enough to win, but he focused on the wrong rival
The Dutch superstar appeared every bit as strong as he did last Saturday during his Milano-Sanremo victory, and used this strength to shred Jumbo-Visma’s team strength.
However, the course, which wasn’t hard enough for him to distance Van Aert, meant that instead of riding clear as he did at MSR, Van der Poel needed to win this race with superior sprint strategy and positioning.
After Van Aert was distanced on the Kwaremont, he seemed to be solely focused on Pogačar. This means that instead of recognizing a sprint with Van Aert was what the race would come down to, he was too preoccupied with late attacks and early sprints from Pogačar, which allowed his biggest threat Van Aert to take the last wheel in the group without contest, and ultimately cost him the victory.
3) Tadej Pogačar lost the battle, but with a harder course looming at Flanders, he potentially wins the war
It was somewhat unreal and a testament to Pogačar’s surreal talent to watch the sport’s best grand tour rider go head-to-head with the sport’s best one-day riders in a Spring Cobbled classic.
However, while Pogačar was the strongest rider in the race and is likely leaving the race feeling confident about next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, the E3 course simply wasn’t hard enough to offer the smaller Pogačar a chance to distance the two powerhouses.
But, when these three riders duke it out again at Flanders, the much more difficult course, with the climbs greater in number and closer together and to the finish line, he could be difficult to stop.
4) The top three riders are head and shoulders above the rest
Outside of the joy of watching three of the sport’s best riders ride off the front of a race that normally sees specialized talents contest the win in a sport where the top riders from differing disciplines rarely contest races, the thing that stuck out the most was just how much stronger Van Aert, Van der Poel, and Pogačar were than the rest of the top Classics contenders.
Riders like Matej Mohorič, Mads Pedersen, Alberto Bettiol, and Kasper Asgreen are world-class riders, but they were left in the dust whenever Pogačar decided to lift the pace. This phenomenon highlights the gulf between these three and the best of the rest, and that we shouldn’t expect outsiders to contest wins at the major cobbled races to come.
Additionally, the fact that the strong teammates surrounding Van der Poel and Van Aert were so easily shed by Pogačar on the steep cobbled climbs showed us that overall team strength, or weakness, might not matter as much as it normally would at Flanders since when Pogačar lifts the pace in the finale, only the strongest rider from each team will have a chance to stay with him.
Volta Catalunya Stage 5
300m: Heading into the final few hundred meters of the incredibly difficult final summit finish, Remco Evenepoel, tied on time on Primoz Roglic, opens up his sprint incredibly early.
Finish: Roglic holds Evenepoel’s wheel during his surge but trusts that Evenepoel wouldn’t be able to sustain his sprint through the entire difficult final kilometer before coming by him inside the final few meters. Evenepoel pays for his early effort by completely cracking and slow-rolling to the line while Roglic surges clear for the win, time bonus, and a massive 6-second victory.
1) Primož Roglič +0 (plus 10 seconds for time bonus)
2) Remco Evenepoel +6 (plus 6 seconds for time bonus)
3) João Almeida +12 (plus 4 seconds for time bonus)
GC Standings After Stage 5
1) Primož Roglič +0
2) Remco Evenepoel +10
3) João Almeida +1’02
Remco Evenepoel’s stage racing tactical inexperience gives Primož Roglič plenty to prey on in the upcoming Giro d’Italia
After sitting up to slow roll over the line and celebrate a stage win in a tied stage yesterday, Evenepoel launched a doomed way-too-long uphill sprint after a brutal final kilometer on a stage where he needed to ensure he beat Roglič in the sprint to all-but seal overall victory. When this effort imploded, Evenepoel gave Roglič the stage win, and a shocking additional six seconds, when he ran out of gas.
The mismanagement of the simple tactics of uphill sprints in multiple stages (1,2,3 & 5) shows us that Roglič, who is getting in better and better form by the day (he produced a 1921 VAM/6.9 w/kg effort for the entire final 21-minute climb), has plenty of strategic weaknesses to attack during their upcoming GC battle at the three-week Giro d’Italia.
What to Watch This Weekend:
Volta Catalunya Stages 6-7 (Saturday-Sunday)
Roglic will attempt to hold his 10-second lead over Remco Evenepoel through two tricky stages.
Where/When to Watch:
Free: Tiz Cycling (Enter at your own risk)
Paid: GCN Racepass
The Classics stars will be back at it again to get 260kms of cobbled racing under their belts and test each other prior to the Tour of Flanders the following weekend.
Where/When to Watch:
Free: Tiz Cycling (Enter at your own risk)
Paid: FloBikes (USA) GCN Racepass (Global + USA w/VPN))
Thrilling is right! A great race.
You nailed it with describing this as a new golden age. The key is the new spirit the best riders bring to the racing. Pog, WVA and MVDP race every time they show up.
Having the top GC rider approach racing like this is a sea change from the days of Armstrong and then Froome when peaking and focus on July seemingly dominated every thought and each pedal stroke.
Pog is the new patron of the peloton. Not a mafia don patron (sorry Lance) or a gentleman patron (shouldn't Froome be the knight not Wiggo?) but a precocious, irrepressible patron whose willingness to try and fail both brings himself a full range of successes and opens the field for others to step into the spaces his impulsiveness opens up.
And great to see a rider like Matteo Jorgensen take a bite of the same GC (Oman) and cobbles (E3) stew. The Movistar man's performance in Harelbeke is an indicator of how the best riders have set a n adventurous, attacking tone for the entire peloton.