Patience Wins the Day at Gent-Wevelgem & Ineos Crushes the Field at Catalunya

Wout played the waiting game perfectly at Gent-Wevelgem while Adam Yates lays down a marker in Catalunya and potentially sows chaos within his team

Wout van Aert won the cobbled classic Gent-Wevelgem with ease in a reduced bunch sprint out of an elite group of fast-men, with Italian duo Giacomo Nizzolo and Matteo Trentin rounding out the podium. Patience was key after strong cross-tail winds split the race up early, especially in the absence of rival Mathieu van der Poel and the entirety of the Trek-Segafredo and Bora-Hansgrohe teams, and Van Aert played the waiting game to perfection in the final 50-kilometers.

Meanwhile, across the Pyrenees, Ineos wrapped up their domination of the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, with Adam Yates winning the first European WorldTour stage race of his career and his teammate Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas coming in 2nd and 3rd overall. Yates was far and away the best rider all week on both the climbs and in the time trials, and his definitive victory over Ineos leaders Thomas and Richard Carapaz will force the British squad to reconsider their Tour de France strategy and potentially make some difficult decisions before June.

Race Notes:
230-100km-ish
: It wasn’t on live TV, but the crosswinds split the race up very early in the race and we get an elite front group of fast riders. While it isn’t as big as the chasing group, but the crosswinds and the fact that they are all-in due to going away so early will give them a cohesiveness that will make it tough to pull them back.

95km: One of the biggest developments in the early move is that unlike on Friday at E3, Van Aert has a teammate with him, Nathan Van Hooydonck. This is huge since it means he can sit on while his teammate drives the pace to keep the gap between him and the chasing group as large as possible.

54km: Wout has his teammate Van Hooydonck increase the pace on the second ascent of the Kemmelberg.

Wout then pushes it himself to pare the group down to just seven other riders: Bennett, Matthews, Trentin, Colbrelli, Küng, Nizzolo, Van Poppel. This is incredibly savvy since it dumps the dead weight but pulls out only the strongest riders and keeps the group together enough to keep their gap over the chasers.

36km: As the front group approaches the third and final ascent of the Kemmelberg, Trentin leads the way with a hard but steady pace. I was wondering if Wout was going to attack here since it is his last chance to get rid of incredibly fast sprinters like Nizzolo and Bennett, but he just increases the pace slightly and overtakes Trentin. You can see Bennett (in blue) struggling behind, but close enough that he will catch back on during the descent.

35km: On the descent, it is clear that Wout has made a slight miscalculation by increasing the pace. He has failed to drop any of the sprinters but has distanced his teammate, thus eliminating his main advantage over the rest of the group. Luckily for Jumbo, Van Hooydonck manages his effort, doesn’t panic, and is able to close the gap.

Also, note the time gap to the chasing group. The front group has increased from 48-seconds at the base of the climb to nearly a minute just a kilometer later afterward. This was the DQS-led chase group’s best chance to pull back the leaders, but the gap went the wrong way. This tells me the leaders are gone-baby-gone and will fight for the win between themselves.

33km: Gent-Wevelgem is unique since the final climb is over 30km from the finish line, which means the composition of the winning group rarely changes after the final pass of the Kemmelberg. But 2km after digging deep to stay with the leaders over the Kemmelberg, the fastest sprinter in the group and a huge favorite to win the final sprint, Sam Bennett, drops off the back of the breakaway to vomit. He is able to recover and catch back on, but clearly, he has gone so deep to stay with the front group that he is vulnerable.

16km: Van Hooydonck’s ability to catch back on after the Kemmelberg proves to be a game-changer. He attacks, increases the pace and sends the rest of the group into the gutter in the crosswinds.

He doesn’t get away, but Bennett is dropped by this acceleration, which is a huge win for Wout, who just got rid of the only rider capable of beating him in a sprint.

1.7km: Since Wout and Van Hooydonck are happy to let this come down to a sprint, no moves get away in the final 16km. But inside the 2km mark, we see how critical Van Hooydonck’s presence is in this group when Stefan Kung attempts to launch an attack on the opposite side of a traffic island a la Kasper Asgreen at E3, but is immediately shut down and almost publicly shamed by Van Hooydonck’s staredown as he reels him in.

Finish: Van Hooydonck stays on the front and rides at a high tempo to deter attacks inside the final km. Kung attempts one more move with 300m-ish to-go, but it just serves as lead-out for Wout, who launches early and absolutely destroys the other world-class sprinters in the group.

Final Top-Ten

Takeaways:

The Good

  • Wout van Aert gets a very impressive win, oddly his first career WorldTour win in Belgium, with a devastating sprint, but also some very cerebral race tactics and an impressive amount of patience.

  • He got little support from his Jumbo teammates in the critical points of E3 on Friday, but today his teammate Van Hooydonck was the man of the match. He not only dropped the fastest sprinter in the front group, but his continued presence there meant Van Aert didn’t have to chase down attacks himself and could sit back and save energy for the sprint.

  • This performance supports the theory that his late-race struggles on Friday were possibly due to a hunger knock as he missed a bottle feed at 31km-to-go rather than structural issues with his form.

The Bad

  • Deceuninck - QuickStep won on Friday at E3 with overwhelming swarm tactics, but Sunday was a massive disappointment for the squad. It is almost inconceivable that they would put themselves in a position where their only rider in the front group of a Cobbled Classic is Sam Bennett. It is even more shocking when we consider the reason they were caught out were echeloned early in the day, which is their in-house specialty.

  • Even worse is that they looked confused and disoriented during the chase. Instead of making a definite decision to go all-in to pull the front group back, they kept trying to launch counter-attacks to bridge up with small groups to avoid pulling a bunch of riders back up to Bennett. It is a difficult situation for them to manage, but the split-strategy between trying to keep Bennett up-the-road with some of the best Classics riders in the world and contributing to the start-stop pace behind meant they were doomed to lose by leaving him up there. And since Bennett was the best bunch sprinter in the race, the risk of hurting his chances by increasing the size of the front group was low.

  • Not only did they fail to get a single rider on the same time as the winner, but their top-placed rider was Yves Lampaert in 14th. This inconsistency mirrors their great day at Omloop, followed by a letdown the next day at Kuurne. The fact they are still struggling to show up every race is concerning with only a week before the biggest race of the Spring, the Tour of Flanders.

  • If DQS had a bad day, EF-Education First and Team DSM were even worse. Both teams have aspirations at the Spring Classics, but DSM’s top rider was Soren Kragh Andersen in 35th and EF failed to get a single rider inside the top-49 places, with rookie Stefan Bissegger nabbing their best placing, at 50th.

For Further Consideration

  • A lot will be made of Van Aert out-sprinting the likes of Nizzolo, Colbrelli, and Matthews, but, according to bunch sprint performance data over the last three years, behind Sam Bennett, Van Aert was actually by far the best bunch sprinter in the front group, hence his confidence to take them all to the line.

    Front Group Bunch Sprint Performance 2019-2021

  • Outside of DQS, it is hard to muster up much serious criticism of the other teams and riders who made the front group. Kung was the only rider that lacked a real chance in the sprint finish, so you could argue he shouldn’t have contributed to the pacemaking after the final climb of the Kemmelberg made it clear the race would come down to the sprint. But, with Van Hooydonck in the front group willing to do whatever it took to keep the race together for Van Aert, it isn’t clear if he could have done anything more to get away solo.

  • Everyone else had at least a non-zero chance of winning in the sprint, and it would have been silly to risk this with a long-range attack that was almost certainly doomed to fail (see: Kung’s attack with 1.7km remaining).

  • Van Aert’s win is impressive, but it will be marked by the absence of Bora-Hansgrohe and Trek-Segafredo, who were pulled from the race due to COVID positives within the team. This meant last year’s winner Mads Pedersen and red-hot Milano-Sanremo champion Jasper Stuyven weren’t able to start. I have to think the race would have played out differently with the inclusion of these two strong teams and possibly wouldn’t have broken up so early.

  • Another rider whose absence was notable was Mathieu van der Poel. He didn’t take the race start for unspecified reasons and his inclusion would certainly have shaped the race. It is hard for me to imagine the front group going over the Kemmelberg intact if he was in the race.

  • From the outside, Van der Poel’s non-start might seems like a timely rest, but if we look deeper, it is a big deal. Only a single rider, Philippe Gilbert, has missed Gent-Wevelgem and won the Tour of Flanders since the race was moved to the week prior in 2010. However, Gilbert raced the now-kind-of-defunct three-day race Driedaagse De Panne in the week leading up to Flanders. Missing six hours of race-pace riding is critical a week before a similar effort.

Volta Ciclista a Catalunya

After two thrilling one-week stage races in Paris-Nice and Tirreno Adriatico, it was hard not to be disappointed by the Volta a Catalunya. After Adam Yates’ dominant performance on Stage 3, the general classification was never in doubt.

However, despite this GC monotony, there were a few interesting developments throughout the week:

Ineos dominates but their Tour leadership situation is more ambiguous than ever.

  • Ineos became the first-ever team to finish 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in the final general classification, with Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas filling out the final two podium slots behind Yates.

  • We saw Adam Yates’ time trailing and climbing better than we’ve ever seen before, which will have implications for the team’s Tour de France leadership battle. When Ineos released their 12-man Tour longlist a few months ago, they said Richard Carapaz, Geraint Thomas, and Tao Geoghegan Hart would be splitting leadership and that Yates wouldn't be heading to the race.

  • After this week, where we saw Carapaz struggle to climb with the front group at times and Thomas fail to time trial on the same level as Yates and Porte, the team has to be reconsidering their strategy internally and possibly even regretting calling their shot so early in the year. If they change leadership now, there will certainly be grumblings from riders like Carapaz and Thomas, where if they would have played their cards close to their chest, it wouldn’t appear as though they are changing their strategy on-the-fly.

  • With the Yates twins, Simon and Adam, taking the start lines on different teams for the first time in their careers, we got the unique sight of a head-to-head Yates battle. At least for the moment, it appears that Adam is a rider reborn while Simon struggled all week, coming in 8th overall and over a minute behind his twin. This is notable since Simon has always been the better stage racer, and if Adam overtakes his twin in this discipline, we will have even more compelling evidence that Ineos’ stage-racing training ethos and system are truly superior to the rest of the peloton.

The GC Pretenders Disappoint 

  • The start list wasn’t riddled with GC stars, but there were plenty of riders who are considered elite climbers and threats in the overall classification. But, they were absolutely steamrolled by Ineos, who while strong, certainly wasn’t full of riders were considered locks to dominate. Geraint Thomas hasn’t won a stage race since his Tour victory in 2019, Richie Porte hasn’t won a European stage race since Tour de Suisse in 2018, and Adam Yates’ biggest stage race win prior to this was the 2020 UAE Tour.

  • These are strong riders, but certainly not destroyers. Riders like Hugh Carthy, Sepp Kuss, Joao Almeida, Simon Yates, Nairo Quintana, Mike Woods, Enric Mas, and Rigoberto Uran have to be doing some introspection after failing to put up any significant fight in the GC and we should keep this in mind when building a list of favorites for future stage races.

  • This is a great win for Adam Yates, but success at Catalunya doesn’t automatically mean success later in the year. In the last 10 editions, only two riders have gone on to win a grand tour in the same season they won Catalunya.

Sagan is peaking at just the right time.

  • Peter Sagan got his first professional race win since having to postpone his season due to a case of COVID with his impressive sprint victory on Stage 6. This really makes things interesting for next weekend, and considering his Bora team was removed from E3 and Gent-Wevelgem at the last second due to a COVID positive, him racing Catalunya, which initially seemed like a strange decision, is actually the best-case scenario for his buildup for Flanders. Watch for the former three-time World Champion to be a dangerous wildcard next weekend.