Kasper Asgreen was the least feted of the Deceuninck-QuickStep squad that rode on stage for the signing-on ceremony in Antwerp's Grote Markt ahead of the Tour of Flanders, and the Danish youngster admitted afterwards that he still finds himself a little starstruck on such occasions.
"When we’re on the podium at the start of a race, I still look over and think, ‘Fucking hell, I’m on the same team as Philippe Gilbert,'" Asgreen laughed as he stood outside his team bus afterwards.
It a curious edition of the Ronde, one that saw Asgreen supersede his illustrious leaders by finishing as the team’s best rider, taking second place behind surprise winner Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First). The Dane was on the offensive early and often at this Tour of Flanders. Already an aggressor on the Muur, he bridged up to earlier attackers Stijn Vandenbergh and Sep Vanmarcke on the first ascent of the Paterberg with 57km to go.
Asgreen, now in the company of Dylan van Baarle (Team Sky), was still out in front come the final lap over the Kwaremont. Though he was caught and passed by Bettiol on that menacing sea of cobbles, he later conjured up the strength to clip away from the chasing group on the run-in and claim a wholly unforeseen second place.
Deceuninck-QuickStep entered the Ronde with four designated leaders – Gilbert, Lampaert, Jungels and Zdenek Stybar – but their strongest performer proved to be a hitherto unheralded 24-year-old making his Tour of Flanders debut.
"I did not expect this. We had four big leaders who what really proven they could win this race, so for me to be up there in the final was really unexpected for me," Asgreen said.
"On the run-in, we were trying to set up the sprint for Yves [Lampaert] for second place. Alberto out in front was going really strong and I think everybody realised we were going for second place. I was going to the front just to keep the speed in the group, but apparently I had Bob [Jungels] on my wheel and he let it go and I was able to go to the line."
After the lengthy podium ceremonies and an audience with Sporza television, Asgreen pedalled through the crowds back to his bus on Oudenaarde's main square, where a muted atmosphere prevailed after an otherwise disappointing afternoon for the team. He shyly acknowledged a cry of congratulations from a supporter as he climbed the steps, but, perhaps mindful of the prevailing mood, he seemed reluctant to betray too much satisfaction at his own success.
Asgreen wore a readier smile when he emerged from the bus shortly afterwards to film a live interview for Denmark’s TV2 news bulletin, before talking the rest of the waiting media through his Ronde debut.
He only joined QuickStep from Continental outfit Virtu in April of last year, but he impressed sufficiently in his opening months with the squad to form a part of their winning team time trial effort at the 2018 Worlds. This season he was drafted into the cobbled Classics unit, though his selection for the Tour of Flanders was only confirmed on Wednesday evening.
The illness that limited Gilbert’s capacity played a part in Asgreen's elevation in the hierarchy here, though perhaps not as much as the circumstances of the race and the simple fact that he proved to have more staying power than most of his nominal leaders.
"I think everybody was still hoping that Phil would be good today, but unfortunately he was not in top form," Asgreen said. "But jumping in and taking Phil’s place with my credentials is not something you just do. It was not part of the plan. My role in the team was to try to cover some of the early attacks out near the Muur-Kapelmuur and then see how far I could get, and then help the leaders going into the climbs in a good position."
Asgreen did that and more. He led the group of favourites on the first ascent of the Paterberg on behalf of his captains, but his forcing was such that he bridged across alone to the escapees. They were later joined by Van Baarle, who in turned forged clear with Asgreen on the Hotond. They carried a buffer of 20 seconds into the final lap over the Kwaremont and Paterberg.
"We never really had that much of a gap and I could hear in the radio that there were still some of the strong guys attacking so I expected them to come back on the Kwaremont the last time because when Van Avermaet and these guys really open up, they go really fast," Asgreen said.
"I tried to get on Bettiol’s wheel, but when he went past me it was impossible to go with him. The group behind was going a little bit slower, so I could hang on there and I managed to hang in there on the Paterberg as well.”
Asgreen is pencilled in to make his Paris-Roubaix debut next week, though he insisted that his podium finish here would not alter his status on the team.
"Like I said, I don’t have the credentials to take on the role of leader in a big race like this. It’s a good step on the way but there are still some really good riders on this team," he said carefully. "Growing up, I always watched the Tour of Flanders on the first Sunday in April, so just to be participating this year was amazing. On the start line today, I was pinching myself."
Asgreen laughed when asked if the occasion had lived up to expectations. "It more than did," he said. And in the end, so did he.
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