The hills of the Flemish Ardennes are where they have always been, but the lie of the land is somehow different as the peloton begins the final approach to the Tour of Flanders at Friday’s E3 Saxo Bank Classic. For once in this corner of the world, it seems the road to victory doesn’t necessarily run through QuickStep-AlphaVinyl.
Kasper Asgreen ought to know. He won both E3 and the Tour of Flanders last year, after all, but he is mindful that his QuickStep-AlphaVinyl squad has not yet fired on all cylinders on the cobbles this season. It’s all relative, of course. The team have notched up 14 wins so far in 2022, including Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, but they were outflanked by Wout van Aert’s Jumbo-Visma squad at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and have been troubled by illness in the weeks since.
“We might not be the strongest team going into the races. We’re definitely not the team that has been dominating like we were last year but I think we still have some great riders,” Asgreen told reporters in a video call on Thursday afternoon.
“The main pressure falls to Jumbo. Their strength and the way they have been riding is really. really impressive. But that strength also comes with a certain responsibility, which falls on them this year.”
QuickStep celebrate their 20th year in the peloton this season and in that time, their pre-eminence on the cobbles has always faced notable threats from individuals of outlandish strength, from Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan to Mathieu van der Poel and Van Aert. This time out, however, QuickStep must reckon with a new conundrum, namely Jumbo-Visma’s remarkable depth after their signings of Tiesj Benoot and Christophe Laporte.
“They strengthened their Classics team a lot over the winter with some really good transfers and they are going really well,” Asgreen said. “We have to have a lot of respect for that. Now they will probably be in the position that we’ve been in the last few years. They’re going to end up with a lot of the work and they might end up pulling alone in Flanders until the final starts.
“That will depends on how the next week goes. But as things are right now, we just can’t match the strength they have. It’s their job, it’s as simple as that.”
Asgreen’s assessment was pragmatic rather than defeatist, and he struck an optimistic tone as he looked ahead to the weekend’s racing in Harelbeke and at Gent-Wevelgem. “We’ve also seen in Paris-Nice that Jumbo can be beaten in Paris-Nice; it’s not impossible and we will try to do that,” he said.
The Dane is QuickStep’s leading option in Harelbeke, with 2019 winner Zdenek Stybar also on board. Yves Lampaert, who abandoned Paris-Nice through illness, has been held back for Gent-Wevelgem, where Fabio Jakobsen is the designated sprinter.
“It was also a wise decision to pull them a little bit earlier from the races,” Asgreen said of Stybar and Lampaert’s early departures from Paris-Nice. “If you completely run yourself into the ground trying to finish race, then you’re fucked, I believe my teammates have taken a step up.”
Asgreen had his own problems with illness earlier in the spring, when COVID-19 ruled him out of the Tour de la Provence. That delayed the start of his season by a week, but he already looked to be up to speed by the time he rode to third place behind a rampant Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) at Strade Bianche.
“Strade Bianche is probably on the limit of my capabilities, so the fact that I was able to be up there was a really good sign for me,” said Asgreen, who raced Tirreno-Adriatico but then opted out of Milan-San Remo with an eye to this season’s slightly extended cobbled Classics campaign.
“I needed to have a block of training with Paris-Roubaix being so late this year and after Tirreno was the only opportunity to do it. I’m confident going into the Classics that I am where I want to be.”
A year ago, Asgreen could rely on the Julian Alaphilippe as a foil at the Ronde, but the world champion has opted to skip the cobbled Classics this time around. His absence, Asgreen acknowledged, deprives the team of a singular weapon.
“I think the biggest difference will be on the hardest climbs like Berendries or Koppenberg, because we don’t have a guy anymore who is probably the best on those steep, long climbs,” he said. “The rest of us are a bit bigger than the average, so we will be in a bit more defensive position on those longer, steeper climbs. It changes the dynamics a bit, but we just have to be aware of it and think about it.”
Then again, QuickStep have lost riders of the calibre of Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert, Niki Terpstra and Bob Jungels over the past five years without seeming to lose a beat. Their strength in numbers has been a calling card, typified by Stybar and Florian Sénéchal’s policing of the chasers behind Asgreen in Harelbeke a year ago.
It remains to be seen if they can work a similar angle this time out. If not, mind, Asgreen’s subsequent disposal of Van der Poel at the Tour of Flanders showed that the usual script is always ripe for rewriting in these races.
“I probably have to change my tactics a bit,” Asgreen accepted. “I might have to get them a bit more mano a mano like I did in Flanders.”
QuickStep-AlphaVinyl for E3 Saxo Bank Classic: Kasper Asgreen (Den), Davide Ballerini (Ita), Mikkel Honoré (Den), Florian Sénéchal (Fra), Stijn Steels (Bel), Jannik Steimle (Ger), Zdenek Stybar (Cze)
QuickStep-AlphaVinyl for Gent-Wevelgem: Kasper Asgreen (Den), Davide Ballerini (Ita), Fabio Jakobsen (Ned), Florian Sénéchal (Fra), Iljo Keisse (Bel), Yves Lampaert (Bel), Bert Van Lerberghe (Bel)
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.