Although Alexey Lutsensko pulled out of the race after his exploits 24 hours ago in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the Astana squad rallied in Kuurne with Davide Ballerini and Magnus Cort making the key selection of the race on the Varent stretch of cobbles with 66km remaining. The move was sparked by eventual winner Bob Jungels, with Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) and Sebastian Langeveld (EF Education First) the only other riders who could follow.
When Jungels surged clear with 16km to go there was no response from those left in his wake, and although the remnants of the break were swallowed up by the pursuing bunch, with Hugo Houle the best Astana rider over the line, their director Lars Michaelsen was pleased with his team's overall performance.
"Our initial strategy was to make an aggressive race," he told Cyclingnews at the finish.
"When we looked at the start list we saw there was Dylan Groenewegen, perhaps Jasper Philipsen and then Pascal Ackermann who would do the sprint, so not that many teams would be interested in a bunch sprint. What we missed was when they went away was a good group. The five riders in the front Naesen, Jungels, our two guys and Langeveld were wearing themselves out but also they were wearing out those behind."
Astana won Omloop last year through Michael Valgren - now of Dimension Data - but with the tutelage of Michaelsen, the team has slowly improved in the cobbled-classics department. Lutsenko was fourth in Omloop, while Cort - still just 25 - had a number of impressive one-day performances in 2018. On Sunday, they simply lacked a rider capable of matching Jungels but unlike several more respected Classics outfits, Astana at least put themselves in a position to compete.
"We've been working on the Classics group since I came to the team. We've proved every year that although we're underdogs, we're still up there, even with riders that you don't expect. I'm not going to say we're going to win Flanders, but it's nice to be up there.
"Of course I would like to have a rider like Jungels. A rider with an engine that you can count on. The one thing is that we've proven in 2019 at Omloop is that Lutsenko has the engine and that he can be up there but he still has a way to go if he's to understand how to win these races. It's not the Tour of Oman, this is completely different."
Although Ballerini was told to save his legs for the finale, he was unable to follow Jungels. However, Michaelsen has seen enough to suggest that the talented Italian can make a name for himself in the Classics. This was Ballerini's first real tilt at the Belgian one-day events, and he is set to compete over a full spring programme.
"We were trying to let Ballerini off a little bit. It's all new to him. He's never done these races on this level. He's full on, ambitious and keen on doing these races. That's half of it because some riders these days they see rain and they stop after 10 kilometres. Ballerini will one day achieve something here."
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