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What did Gent-Wevelgem teach us ahead of the Tour of Flanders?

Joe Robinson
1 Apr 2019

A great day for cyclocross riders, tactical sprinting and Deceuninck-QuickStep's mortal side

The 2019 offering was probably one of the best editions of Gent-Wevelgem in recent history. Early crosswinds, a furious average speed, Peter Sagan and Mathieu Van Der Poel in the day's breakaway and a sprint finish between riders who were clearly running on empty.

UAE-Team Emirates' Alexander Kristoff demonstrated he really is world class at sprinting into a headwind after 250km, taking a victory that broke the dominance of Deceuninck-QuickStep, who after six one-day Classic wins failed to post a rider in the top 10.

It was also a good day for cyclocross starlets Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert, who both made the transition from racing for one hour to more than five look effortless as both shone brightly in Flanders' fields.

Meanwhile, it was a day to forget for Dimension Data, who failed to post a rider in the top 50, and Peter Sagan who found himself in the day's break but was then dropped on the Kemmelberg and had nothing left for the final sprint finish.

So, with a week until Belgium's biggest race, what did this weekend's Gent-Wevelgem teach us in the lead up to the Tour of Flanders next Sunday?

Deceuninck-QuickStep are beatable, but only just

So we finally saw the human side of Deceuninck-QuickStep. It turns out their mortal streak was embodied in the legs of Elia Viviani.

Riding into the final kilometre of racing, you'd have bet your house on the Italian champion being the fastest man in that bunch but he simply ran out of gas. He even admitted that himself at the finish. 

It showed a side of Deceuninck-QuickStep that we haven't really seen this Spring – that they can be beaten. It's just the sign needed to remind the rest of the peloton that it is actually possible to beat Patrick Lefevere's men in spring.

That said, despite the best efforts of Trek-Segafredo, Bora-Hansgrohe and Team Jumbo, who forced a 20-man star-studded break very early on, the likes of Yves Lampaert, Philippe Gilbert and Zdenek Stybar rode a tactically-flawless chase which ended in the final break being caught within the final kilometre, with QuickStep's star sprinter Viviani still intact.

Going into Flanders this Sunday, Lefevre's men will still be runaway favourites and the team to watch but for the rest of the peloton, Sunday showed us there is still hope.

Cyclocross stars begin to dominate on the road

To my mind, the three best riders over this weekend of racing all have one thing in common: they are all multiple cyclocross World Champions. Those riders were Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Zdenek Stybar.

Van Aert is very close to a big win. I felt that if E3-BinckBank and Gent-Wevelgem were a little harder, he would have been able to force a race-winning move. The stinging attacks were there, it was just that the terrain at both races was not to the benefit of a solo rider.

Fortunately for Van Aert, the Tour of Flanders does have the terrain for such an attack.

Van Der Poel made his 2019 WorldTour debut at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday. He was part of the day's early break, launched an attack on the day's final climb and then sprinted to fourth beating the likes of Gaviria, Viviani and Sagan.

No one is surprised by this, though. Van Der Poel is clearly a generational talent. One of those riders who comes along, wins everything, then goes down in the annals of the sport as one of the greatest. 

As for Stybar, he is the best Classics rider in the world right now. He won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last month and E3-BinckBank last Friday. Then at Gent-Wevelgem he proved he is a team player, burying himself continuously to set up Viviani. 

There was one moment in the final kilometres that I thought Stybar had finally blown. He was dead last in the bunch and barely holding the wheel. Next thing I knew, he was back on the front taking one last pull.

That's the mark of someone in scarily good form, form that is without a doubt good enough to win the Tour of Flanders.

You can't buy class

I tend not to celebrate the individual exploits of bike riders, as a cycling journalist it's always best to remain impartial. But when I saw Alexander Kristoff and John Degenkolb take to the podium in Wevelgem's town centre on Sunday I afforded myself a little smile.

Kristoff is a double Monument winner. That's a tally the same as Sagan and more than Greg Van Avermaet but you wouldn't know that if you looked at how he is regarded in today's peloton by outside observers.

Many point to the lack of major wins since the Tour of Flanders in 2016, some point to the fact that he often looks out of shape and overweight when racing.

Fact is, Kristoff has finished every Grand Tour he has raced, recorded six consecutive top 10 finishes at Milan-San Remo between 2013 and 2018 and five consecutive top-five performances at Flanders between 2013 and 2017.

As for Degenkolb, that training ride crash in 2016 meant that he had to almost start again, such was the extent of his injuries. 

Even returning to bike racing was a victory for this former San Remo and Roubaix winner, so results such as a podium at Gent-Wevelgem need to be placed into the wider picture of how far the German has come in three years.

What's even more impressive about Degenkolb's second place was the fact he was dropped on the Kemmelberg earlier in the day, proving his mental resilience and reluctance to give up.

Both of these riders had been told they were past their best. Both of these riders proved to us that class is permanent.

Is Naesen the new Vanmarcke?

So second at Milan-San Remo, eighth at E3-BinckBank and third at Gent-Wevelgem. Tenth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and second on Stage 8 of Paris-Nice.

Consistency is not the problem for AG2R La Mondiale's Ollver Naesen, it's winning that's the problem.

He is yet to taste success on the cobbles of Flanders despite appearing to be perfectly suited to the parcours. He is beginning to remind me of Sep Vanmarcke.

Vanmarcke is the eternal bridesmaid. Always there or thereabouts in the Spring Classics but never able to pull off the big win, whether it be the lack of a sprint, an unfortunate crash or an ill-timed mechanical.

Let's hope for Naesen's sake, this is not the case.

Fernando Gaviria is really smart and selfless

Watch Gaviria follow teammate Kristoff's wheel through a tiny gap in the final 250m. Then watch him sit up to give Kristoff the jump on the competition and effectively end any chance Viviani had of winning the race.

Firstly, that's extremely selfless for a sprinter to do. Others would have gone for the sprint themselves fully in the knowledge they had no chance of winning.

Secondly, it's extremely smart. It gives Kristoff the smallest advantage over the likes of Degenkolb and Naesen but it's ultimately all that was needed to win the race.

Gaviria has racing nous, the kind you need to be successful at races such as Flanders. One to ponder for the future.

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