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Comment: Youth trumps wisdom at the Tour of Flanders

8 Apr 2019

Words: Joe Robinson

In August 1995, well-respected football pundit Alan Hansen watched a youthful Manchester United team go down 3-1 to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season.

When Des Lynham asked the Scot what the problem was he uttered the line ‘You can’t win anything with kids’.

Fast forward eight months and that same Manchester United side secured a Premier League/FA Cup double with a team that, including the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers, had an average age of under 26.

Needless to say, Hansen’s comments came back to haunt him.

Before the 103rd Tour of Flanders last Sunday, most in cycling were echoing similar sentiments – that you can't win this race if you’re young or without experience.

It’s one of the toughest races in the calendar with its never-ending cobbled helligen, constant jostling for position, the wind, the road surfaces.

To win such a race requires you to first pay your dues, serve an education in which you discover, learn and – only at the end – conquer the race.

After all, previous winners Niki Terpstra and Philippe Gilbert were both deep into their thirties before taking victory. They had both bided their time, paid their dues and eventually been rewarded.

Well this year’s race ripped up that theory and proved that experience and age aren't a requirement for victory at De Ronde.

With 18km left to ride, Education First’s Alberto Bettiol attacked on the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont.

Before long, he’d built a gap to a group of favourites, then rode an impressive tempo on the Paterberg then managed to ride what he described as ‘the longest 14km of his life’ to the finish line in Oudernaarde.

Young Dane Kasper Asgreen, 24, attacked in the closing kilometres to bag second with an in-form Alexander Kristoff out-kicking Mathieu van der Poel for the final place on the podium.

This year’s top 10 saw five riders of the age of 25 or under. The podium’s average age was 27, only boosted by 31-year old Alexander Kristoff’s presence. The average of last year’s podium was 30 and 32 the year before that.

Take Kristoff from the equation and replace him with 24-year-old fourth-placed finisher Mathieu van der Poel and the average of the podium drops to 24.3. Add in fifth place finisher Nils Politt and the average is still only 24.5.

Eventual winner Bettiol is the youngest winner of De Ronde since Tom Boonen in 2005.

The top 10 also had four guys feature making their Flanders debut.

World Champion Alejandro Valverde made his first appearance at the Belgian Classic after 19 years as a professional, finishing eight at his first attempt, while Team Sunweb’s Michael Matthews will be very proud with sixth in what was his introduction to De Ronde.

Van der Poel had the pressure of being favourite despite this being his first ever Monument and despite a bad crash, still managed fourth.

As for Asgreen, he has now got a 50% record of finishing Monuments. A DNF at last year’s Il Lombardia and now second at the Tour of Flanders.

Baby Bettiol

Bettiol was an unexpected Italian winner and his youth showed when crossing the finish line.

Before he’d even given himself a moment’s thought, to digest the importance of the victory and the scale of what had just happened, he was answering questions into a journalist’s microphone that had been poked under his nose.

A rider of more experience would have pushed it away, given a deathly stare or said a few choice words knowing that this was a moment to saviour with his soigneur and teammates.

But the Tuscan, self-confessed ‘mummy’s boy’ was all too polite, answering the questions until a wily EF soigneur put a stop to it.

On his way to the winner’s tent, Bettiol was on the phone presumably to his partner or family, and was reduced to tears as the scale of his achievement started to dawn on him.

On the podium, unsure of really what to do, Bettiol placed the trophy on his head, smile beaming from ear to ear, struggling to take it all in.

He had never won a race before Sunday in seven professional seasons to date, and chose quite the occasion to break his duck.

In claiming one of cycling's most prestigeous prizes, Bettiol is now part of cycling’s folklore, a household name that’ll be uttered by cycling fans the world over. And he is only just 25.

In other words he still has the majority of his career ahead of him yet he already counts a victory that some of the best rider’s go their whole lives chasing.

‘It’s just a dream, I still don’t really believe it. Maybe tomorrow I will read it in La Gazzetta dello Sport if they recognise me’ he said at the finish, hinting at the Italian press’s seeming lack of care for its country’s cyclists compared to its footballers.

That’s probably not the case now.

The rise of ‘Het Fenomeen’

Van der Poel, meanwhile, is only 24-years-old and was making his Flanders debut. Yet he was the pre-race favourite and proved the race’s strongest rider.

Breaking a wheel while jumping a flower box with 60km to go, the Dutchman crashed hard over the handlebars onto his shoulder.

The pain was obvious but his misfortune only fuelled him to go deep.

For the next 30 minutes, Van der Poel rode alone, in a mad pursuit to catch the lead bunch. 14km later, he had regained contact at the summit of the Koppenberg.

16km later, he attacked again, on the Kruisberg, leaving the likes of Alejandro Valverde and Greg van Avermaet suffering to keep his wheel.

By the top of the final climb, the Paterberg, Van der Poel was convinced he was in the lead not knowing that Bettiol had already escaped free.

‘I thought I reached the top of the Paterberg in the lead.I didn’t see Bettiol ride away. They had to tell me afterwards.’ he said in the post-race interview, maybe proving his youthful naivety.

It was not until the final 5km that he realised there was still one man yet to be caught. By this time, it was too much for even Van der Poel to bridge that gap.

But he impressed everyone with how he got back up after that horrific crash, chased back onto the lead group, came back up to the front and then attacked on his own.

All of that in his first ever career Monument, his first race of over 250km, while racing in a second division team in just his second WorldTour race. Quite the showing.

When the footballer Ronaldo - the Brazilian one from the 1990s - played in Italy, the press dubbed him ‘O Fenômeno’, Portuguese for The Phenomenon, because he was unlike anything they’d ever seen before.

Van der Poel is unlike anything I’ve ever seen watching men’s cycling, I’m too young to have watched Merckx, and if you were wondering, in Dutch he’d be called ‘Het Fenomeen’.

Asgreen the surpriser

Kasper Asgreen was a designated workhorse last Sunday, charged with churning the peloton along with teammates Tim Declercq and Iljo Keisse before the likes of Philippe Gilbert, Zdenek Stybar and Bob Jungels took over.

But those latter riders never did took over and with 50km left to go, Asgreen seized the opportunity to join a small break of four. The break didn't survive, but when they were eventually caught in the final 20km, it left Asgreen in the front group riding to the finish.

Gilbert and Stybar had already been dropped with more than 30km left to race while Jungels and Yves Lampaert were flagging.

Asgreen attacked again in the closing stages to solo to second place, holding off the group behind by a slim three seconds.

Talking at the finish, Asgreen realised the significance of the result.

‘Second is a huge result for my career, one that surprises me, but also a step in the right direction, which feeds my confidence ahead of the next races.’

Next Sunday is Paris-Roubaix, the Queen of the Classics, the big one. Like Flanders, the line that Roubaix is a race you learn will be pedalled. You earn your stripes, losing repeatedly until you of an age where the experience and knowledge can guide you to victory.

‘You are not turning up at Roubaix as a kid having never raced it and winning’ they’d say.

But unlike Hansen all those years ago and Bettiol, Asgreen and Van der Poel proved this weekend, it turns out you can win things with kids.