Opening Weekend Notebook: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne
Breaking down an unusual sprint-finish at Omloop & a thrilling Kuurne
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
The first cobbled Classic of the year has come and gone and Davide Ballerini has put us all on notice that he is more than a sprinter and an emerging legitimate threat in the Northern Classics. The Italian on Deceuninck - QuickStep won out of an extremely rare bunch sprint finish with the young British rider on Groupama-FDJ, Jake Stewart, coming in second and the veteran Belgian Sep Vanmarcke on Israel Start-Up rounding out the podium in third.
While a large group rolled into the finish together, the race did break up, with Matteo Trentin ripping an elite group off the front of the peloton with 43-kilometers to go. Julian Alaphilippe would decamp from this group with a solo move, but was brought to heel before the Muur van Geraardsbergen with 18-kilometers to go. After being reeled in, the Frenchman slotted right in at the front to assist his teammate Ballerini to stay upfront and in a position to win the sprint.
Both Omloop on Saturday and Kuurne on Sunday act as a test-run for the more prestigious cobbled Classics later in the Spring, namely the Tour of Flanders on April 4th. It is important to point out that while nobody has ever won Omloop and Flanders in the same year due to the difficulty of holding peak form for five weeks, performance at the two events aren’t uncorrelated and the opening weekend holds clues and hints of how teams/rider will perform later in the Spring.
66km-to-go: The early breakaway has a gap of 2:10 on the peloton while the favorites sit in the peloton and keep their powder dry.
54km: Deceuninck - QuickStep makes their first move as Julian Alaphillipe and I believe his teammate Yves Lampaert jam it to the front before a sharp right-hand turn.
When we zoom out and see the intense bottleneck as the peloton is forced to squeeze onto a tiny farm road from a highway, we can see how important course knowledge and a cohesive team strategy is in these Northern Classics.
53km: And sure enough, there is a crash in the peloton directly afterward. This is where the real race actually starts.
51km: Zdeněk Štybar, one of Deceuninck - QuickStep’s leaders for the race suffers a mechanical and/or flat tire. He gets a new bike but it is race over for anyone off-the-back at this point. This puts responsibility into the hands of Ballerini and Alaphilippe
45km: With a series of short but steep cobbled climbs between them and the finish, the peloton slows before the start of the Molenberg in a few kilometers. In the screenshot below, you can see how important positioning in these races. Nobody is moving up in the established phalanx of riders.
43km: Flash forward two kilometers and the peloton is strung out as Matteo Trentin from UAE Team Emirates attacks on the Molenberg.
The moves splits the peloton and pulls out a super-elite front group of Trentin, Van Avermaet, Vanmarcke, Chirstophe Laporte (Cofidis), Arjen Livyns (Bingoal-Wallonie Bruxelles), Michael Gogl (Qhubeka Assos), plus the Deceuninck-QuickStep trio of Alaphilippe, Zdenek Stybar and Davide Ballerini. Alaphilippe wastes no time in getting to the front and turning the screws to make this move stick.
42km: When we zoom out, we can see how much damage has been done in a kilometer-long climb. The “elite” group in the middle of the frame has almost caught the early breakaway with the peloton at the very top of the frame chasing behind.
39km: The “elite” move has caught the breakaway and built up an 11-second gap back to the peloton. Tom Pidcock of Ineos makes an impressive move to bridge this gap and join the leaders.
32km: Not content with sitting around, Alaphilippe attacks as soon as they hit the Berendries climb. Notice Gogl on the front is looking around for someone else to chase. We know right here that they won’t be able to hang with him.
18km: Alaphilippe is pulled back by a re-grouped peloton at the base of the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen. But in my mind, there is where his ride became super impressive. Instead of slotting in at the back and slow-pedaling it to the finish, he gets right on the front to help his teammate Ballerini stay towards the front at a critical juncture of the race.
Outside of a brief Gianni Moscon breakaway attempt, the mighty Muur failed to break up the race and the massive peloton rolled in for a bunch sprint.
Final km: Ballerini (in blue) is led out by his teammate Florian Sénéchal, but instead of simply pulling off and sitting up, Sénéchal slots back in behind Ballerini to act as a sweeper and adding an obstacle for those trying to come around. This is an example of excellent racecraft from the DQS team and shows why they are so dominant in these races.
Ballerini gets the biggest win of his career with a hugely impressive ride. He wasn’t on my riders to watch list, but he should have been after he showed at Tour de la Provence that he was in great shape, can handle difficult courses, and possess a knock-out sprint.
Deceuninck - QuickStep put on a one-day clinic once again and proved once again that team strength and coordination wins these races.
The sprint finish was incredibly unusual. The last time the race was won out of a 15+ rider peloton was Thor Hushovd in 2008 and the 45-rider front group that crossed the finish line on the same time was the biggest front group I could find in the race’s history, with only the 1992 edition coming close, with Johan Capiot winning out of a 43-rider peloton.
Despite this massive front group, the Trek-Segafredo team failed to get a single rider in it. Their best-placed rider was Alex Kirsch in 63rd place. A horrible result for a team that won the race last year.
The young Briton Tom Pidcock showed great potential by bridging up to the ultimately doomed break, but Jake Stewart should be the British revelation of the day. Stewart was essentially unknown before Saturday despite being the same age as Pidcock (21-years-old) and showing natural skills for one-day Classics.
The old guys, Haussler in 4th and Vanmarcke in 3rd, had fantastic races and got results in a sprint finish that didn’t really suit them. Keep an eye on them in the longer Classics later in the spring that will reward their diesel engines.
Alaphilippe put on one of the most impressive non-winning performances I’ve ever seen. He was either on or off the front of the race from 54km until a few kilometers to go. This shows he is really rounding into form and needs to be considered a favorite for Strade-Bianche, Milano-Sanremo and despite his slight build, the Tour of Flanders.
With a fifth place in a sprint that didn’t suit him, Gilbert shows he is incredibly fit and ready to attempt the Monument Sweep at Milano-Sanremo.
This race should be a great example of why the Monuments’ length makes them truly blue-ribbon racers. The 50-kilometer delta from Omloop to Flanders might seem meaningless, but a group this large would never come to the finish line at Flanders and you would rarely have riders like Stewart come out of the woodwork to beat the established stars.
Recovering from their dismal performance the day prior, Trek-Segafredo rallied and delivered Mads Pedersen to a picture-perfect sprint win, with Anthony Turgis and Tom Pidcock rounding out the podium.
While the race ended up in a sprint finish, the action was non-stop from the 84-kilometer mark when Mathieu van der Poel launched a completely unexpected attack, bridged up to the early breakaway, and was only brought back inside the final 2-kilometers after a thrilling chase in the final kilometers. He may not have won, but Van der Poel put everyone on notice that he has to be considered the most dominant cobbled Classics rider in the modern peloton.
84km: On a seemingly innocuous rise, Van der Poel attacks, coming from way back in the peloton and being at such a high speed once he passes the front that only Jhonatan Narvaez can follow him.
You can see him in the screenshot below, you can see Van der Poel on the far right of the frame building up speed, while those on the front have no idea what is coming.
The beauty of this move is that once he passes the leaders, it is too late. Only Narvaez, in blue, has the presence of mind to react.
81km: The two quickly build up a massive lead. Just two kilometers later, they have 30-seconds on the peloton and while still 3-minutes from the breakaway, are closing in fast. I assume the peloton isn’t panicking to close this down because they think is a mindless/pointless attack, but Van der Poel won a stage at the 2020 BincBank Tour with a long solo move almost exactly like this.
61km: Narvaez does an amazing job to hold onto Van der Poel, at times, the size difference makes it looks like a father riding with his child. The duo chews into the breakaway’s lead and catches them on a cobbled climb just 20-kilometers after breaking away while over 3-minutes down.
Notice Van der Poel, a known off-road riding expert, is actually riding on the grass to avoid the bumpier/slower cobbles as he and Narvaez blow through the back of the breakaway and quickly close in on the race leaders (who are riding on the slower cobblestones). Also, note that this is technically against the rules and should result in an automatic DQ, but it doesn’t appear like the rule was enforced today.
16km: A lot happened over the next 46km, but the cliff notes version is that the chasing peloton split up into multiple groups under pressure from Matteo Trentin, Kasper Asgreen, and John Degenkolb. But, the quirk of Kuurne is that unlike the other cobbled classics, it finishes with flat, paved loops in the city of Kuurne that allow dropped groups to catch back on. As the race entered its final lap, the peloton, which had broken up into two groups, merges, while the lead of the Van der Poel group has been chopped down to 10-seconds and a catch looked imminent.
7.5km: An odd thing starts to happen. Instead of being reeled in, Van der Poel has actually driven the gap out to 22-seconds to the chasing peloton. What once looked like a formality is now a 50-50 chance of staying away for the win.
3.9km: The gap is still at 20-seconds and it looks like Van der Poel will actually drive this group to victory. But they still have to overcome these absurdly long and straight boulevards in Kuurne that give the chasing peloton the ability to see the breakaway and favor the bigger group.
3.7km: Kasper Asgreen, last year’s winner, throws down a vicious attack that immediately closes the gap to the lead group to a manageable distance.
2.9km: A solo move on a long-straight road like this almost never works and this is no exception. Due to Asgreen’s surge and the ensuing chase, the peloton has eaten into the Van der Poel group’s entire lead and the odds have swung back in the favor of the chasers.
1.5km: The peloton finally catches the Van der Poel group.
Final km: Jasper Stuyven, winner of the race in 2016, leads out Mads Pedersen, his Trek-Segafredo teammate, who easily wins the reduced sprint. After such a hard race, this is essentially a formality for Pedersen, who has become one of the best “hard race” sprinters in the world.
Great ride by Mads Pedersen. He is emerging as a real Classics star and is someone to watch out for later this Spring. However, one thing that slightly concerns me is that he has never finished inside the top-30 in either opening weekend race and I hope this win isn’t at the expense of results later in the Classics. The last rider to win Kuurne and Flanders in the same season was Andrei Tchmil in 2000.
Pedersen’s Trek team redeemed itself after a dismal performance on Saturday at Omloop. They were one of the only teams with two options in the finale with Pedersen and Stuyven present in the lead group.
The small Norweigan Uno-X team was super impressive and ended up getting three riders inside the top-20. Iversby Hvideberg was in the break all day and was working quite a bit to drive the move, jumps into the peloton to help his two teammates present at the front after being reeled in with 1.5km-to-go.
If Deceuninck - QuickStep put on a clinic on Saturday, they skipped class on Sunday. They only had a single rider in the lead group at the finish, with Bert Van Lerberghe coming in 9th place and while Asgreen put in a strong move with 4km remaining, the same wasn’t able to put him in position to truly challenge for the win.
Ineos, a team that normally struggles in the cobbled Classics, had a great day. Pidcock’s third-place bodes well for his future in these one-day races and Jhonatan Narvaez, the 23-years-old Ecuadorian who won Stage 12 of the 2020 Giro, threw down an incredibly impressive ride. He was the only rider who had the legs/brains/guts to go with Van der Poel and looked very comfortable on the cobbles for a rider who has only been racing in Europe in for four years. But it is worth noting his first year in Europe, 2018, was with the cobbled-specialists Deceuninck - QuickStep team. Ineos appears to have pulled a Classics ace out of seemingly thin air.
One of their leaders, Zdeněk Štybar was nowhere to be seen today after a mechanical took him out of contention at Omloop. He needs to be better in the coming weeks if the team is going to challenge at Flanders and Roubaix.
Greg van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen from AG2R were both incredibly active at both Omloop and Kuurne, but came away with only a single top-ten on the weekend (Van Avermaet’s 8th at Kuurne). The lack of result doesn’t merit hitting the panic button, but Van Avermaet seemed to fall back into his worst habit of expending a huge amount of energy attacking, missing the move, and working to weld the race back together to the benefit of his rivals. This type of riding has cost him numerous results over the years and could continue to haunt him at the bigger races in the coming weeks.
Unpacking the Van der Poel Performance
I’m not sure there is anything left to say about Mathieu van der Poel. He is truly an absurdly talented rider and has the highly unique ability to make any race he enters must-watch TV. I said yesterday that Alaphilippe might have had the most impressive non-winning ride I’ve ever seen at Omloop, but Van der Poel might have topped him today. He bridged over a three-minute gap in 20-kilometers and proceeded to be essentially the sole driver of a breakaway that held off the peloton until 1.5km-to-go.
In just the last week, he won the opening stage of the UAE Tour, was kicked out of the race due to a COVID case on his team, flew back to Europe, entered a race he never intended to start at the last minute, and then decided that even though he probably could have won the race in the sprint, to attempt a breakaway from 83km out that had little to no chance of success and came close to making it work. He entered the race with the express goal of “helping his teammates,” but let’s be honest, no other rider on his Alpecin-Fenix team had a shot to win the race, so Van der Poel was always their best option for success.
His tactics today made little sense, but that isn’t unique for Van der Poel. Having said that, it is possible there is a method to his madness today. He likely cares little about actually winning a race like Kuurne, and his hard effort gave him a chance to build long-distance fitness before the more important (and more difficult) classics later in the spring. It feels strange to bring up any negatives about his absurdly impressive ride today, but his sublime form is perhaps a signal that he is coming into this road season riding high on his Cyclocross form that will fall away in a few weeks. But, of course, if anyone can prove the theory that nobody can stay in peak form forever it is Van der Poel.