Kasper Asgreen leads Mathieu van der Poel over the Paterberg. The Dutch cyclo-cross specialist had tried every trick to find the smoothest path up the climb but Asgreen just rode over the cobbles and beat him to the top, a sign he had more power in the final hour.
There’s a pattern to the Ronde. First an early breakaway that’s wind-dependent. If the wind blows then teams place riders in the early move as insurance but since it was calm, the early break had little chance. Still they got over 10 minutes before Jumbo-Visma and Deceuninck-Quickstep took up the chase with a bit of help from Bora-Hansgrohe.
A lot was happening without the race taking shape, there were crashes and mechanicals galore but with it was during the climb over the Oude Kwaremont with 55km remaining that Belgian TV commentator Michel Wuyts pronounced “‘t is begonnen“, the race had started. Those with 200km in the legs by then and perhaps a crash might disagree but Wuyts had a point as now race reached boiling point and the leaders started making moves. Onto the Paterberg and Mathieu van der Poel and Kasper Asgreen took a small lead. A clue to the final result? Even with hindsight this feels like stretching things as we expected with both riders keen and capable to make a long rang move and together able to ride away. The pair were quickly joined by others including Tim Wellens, Marco Haller, Tom Pidcock with Quickstepper Florian Sénéchal onto them. Then Christophe Laporte moved and Julian Alaphilippe latched on. Deceuninck were closing every window.
More moves followed but the inevitable scenario arrived: after Alaphilippe attacked, it was Asgreen’s “turn” and he put in a big move such that only van Aert and van der Poel could follow and we got the trio as a valiant Anthony Turgis led the chase. The trio up front didn’t last long, onto the Kwaremont again and van der Poel attacked, Asgreen fought to get across and it was game over for van Aert.
Up the Paterberg for the last time and van der Poel was exploiting his cyclocross skills to take the smoother gutter and for a second he looked to have a tactical edge. Only Asgreen was riding up like a tank commander, he matched the pace, then pulled slightly ahead and crossed over the top first: Asgreen was the stronger. But the faster? No, in a sprint between the pair it still looked like van der Poel would smoke the Dane, no? After all only a few minutes back Asgreen had been slow to get to van der Poel.
The surprise was Kasper Asgreen didn’t try to play with van der Poel’s nerves on the run to the finish. Instead he was sharing the work, something L’Equipe described as “driving his own hearse” but if he was going to be buried alive in the finishing straight at least this way Asgreen and his team had second place as their worst option and it stopped van der Poel – if he could – from making repeat attacks and kept things to one outcome, the sprint. Also his team mate Sénéchal was covering and he is quick – he’d won the sprint for second place in the E3… beating van der Poel – but no certainty. Van der Poel led in the final kilometre, waiting like a track sprinter observing his rival. Asgreen launched, van der Poel matched him and then suddenly Dutchman capitulated, shaking his head as he was out-powered. In the race for third Greg Van Avermaet saved Ag2r Citroën’s spring campaign and got them their first ever podium in a monument.
A predictable format, a surprise result. The early breakaway, the flurry of moves and then a move with van Aert, van der Poel and a Deceuninck rider to police them… it all went to script until late on. First van Aert couldn’t match the pace, then on the Paterberg where Asgreen was the stronger. You could replay the race over and over and Asgreen would win again and again and it could be just as exciting. Capable of winning the sprint, of dropping van Aert, he probably could have gone solo too and his team mates played their part, he had the space up front because Sénéchal and Alaphilippe had been sapping the others behind.
That’s it for this season’s cobbled classics, alas there’s no Paris-Roubaix and such a pity as its a unique race that takes place on roads used only once a year. It’s due for October but won’t feel the same. Looking back over the past weeks Van der Poel, van Aert and Alaphilippe were the star figures and monopolised the attention, in part because of what they promised but also what they did. Van Aert fared the best, taking Gent-Wevelgem while van der Poel often looked the most threatening at times but the least clinical too, the excitement he brings isn’t reflected by his palmarès, for the time being. Alaphilippe seems caught between two stools, he’s aiming for the Ardennes as well. As the winner of the E3 Asgreen can stake a claim to be the best too but we don’t have to be reductive and coronate a sole rider. What is more striking is once again Deceuninck-Quickstep looked like the best team again, erratic at times – see Gent-Wevelgem – but over the course of the campaign still the best with Ballerini, Sénéchal and Asgreen as riders with more to deliver.