After three stage races, now for a one day race and no less than the Tour of Flanders.
Moved to a mid-October date, the weak daylight and muddy brown fields lent a similar look to April and in the future if you want to tell images from this edition from the others look for leaves on the trees and the missing public.
One person who wasn’t missing was Julian Alaphilippe, newly crowned as world champion he’d had the Ronde as a goal ever since completing the 2019 Tour de France and stuck to it. He’d made a mess of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, made amends winning the Brabantse Pijl and then made the winning move on the Koppenberg. It was Alaphilippe’s attack with 45km to go that brought the race to boiling point. While some riders roll over the cobbles, Alaphilippe seemed to be bouncing over them, his back wheel jumping and skitting over the stones as he passed Dylan van Baarle and Romain van Bardet. Oliver Naesen gave chase but couldn’t close the gap, so Mathieu van der Poel took over, got clear and got across on the Steenbeekdries and then moments later Wout van Aert used the Stationsberg descent to go clear and they formed a trio. An impressive move but there was still a long way to go. But they were all committed and the chase behind wasn’t, there were enough riders hoping to hitch a free ride that those willing or able to chase began to hesitate.
All of a sudden Alaphilippe was out of the race, colliding with a race motorbike. He was third wheel, had a hand off the bars and if van der Poel was able to swerve, the new world champion couldn’t and cracked his wrist. Ideally the moto shouldn’t have been there and crash shouldn’t have happened and there was a brief polemic on social media but the motorbike rider and Alaphilippe would later talk and there was no ill will. Rather than moto or not, the big question is what could an upright Julian Alaphilippe have done? You can run a lot of counter-factual scenarios here, would he have attacked? What would he have done in the sprint? How would the team tactics have changed, as in he could have sat on playing the “Quickstep card” of them always having numerical superiority in the finish. Here we won’t know.
Instead we were down to two riders and a falling time gap. The chasers included plenty of flandrien royalty and they could almost see the duo ahead as they reached the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg combo and perhaps this helped keep a lid on things at the front, the pair kept on working together, there were no attacks, nor sandbagging. The gap kept falling with Oliver Naesen in solo pursuit but he was picked up by the group and the lead two could sprint for the win. But who would win? Van Aert’s famous for winning bunch sprints but van der Poel has won them before and besides, this was a test of stamina more than speed. In the end the photofinish gave the verdict and van der Poel had won.
Why the highlight?
A hectic race and suspense to the end. The race came alive thanks to Julian Alaphilippe who was able to open up a gap and maybe it would have been even better if he’d been there to add extra dimensions to the finish. But the pair holding off the chase and their sprint that was impossible to call live made it a thriller.
That was that. The Vuelta was still on but with a different cast and if the De Panne races took place in the following days it felt like a very unusual season was finishing, the only thing missing was Paris-Roubaix which should have been the following weekend.
Having all the best riders in all the best races is a bit of a canard, one of the advantages of road cycling as a sport is that it has niches for 50kg climbers and 80kg sprinters alike but there’s something to be said for more overlaps with riders getting out of their piegonholes. Having Alaphilippe take on the cobble specialists expands the cast of characters but this is partly down to Alaphilippe himself who has beaucoup range. He, van der Poel and van Aert are all adverts for doing things differently, van der Poel’s big goal this season was supposed to be the Olympics… and the mountain bike event. To some extent it’s because they can, a domestique on a smaller team won’t get much time to pursue other branches of the sport. But at a time when some teams are eyeing up skiers and rowers as potential recruits, cyclo-cross supplies ready-polished riders into the pro ranks.
Van Aert and van der Poel have a peculiar rivalry, it’s almost vegetarian as there’s not an ounce of beef between them. Their paths have clashed many times but the Ronde showed how they need each other, working together to keep clear. Who would you have preferred to win? It’s hard to pick but Van Aert had already won plenty this year via Milan-Sanremo, the Tour de France and a silver in the worlds while van der Poel had “only” the BinckBank Tour, although thanks to a stunning move on the final day, winning de Ronde brought satisfaction that he too could land a big win as well.