QuickStep-AlphaVinyl performed their traditional pre-Tour of Flanders reconnaissance on Thursday morning. The Koppenberg and the Oude Kwaremont are where they have always been, of course, but a gentle reminder of the obstacles ahead is always welcome before the big day. Belgian cycling's Holy Week is pleasingly punctuated by such rituals.
The lie of the land looked altogether different, however, by the time they returned to their hotel for lunch. Wout van Aert, who has towered over this Spring, is now a doubt for the Tour of Flanders due to illness, with his Jumbo-Visma squad suggesting he was "unlikely" to start. Defending champion Kasper Asgreen acknowledged in QuickStep's press conference on Thursday afternoon that the absence of the pre-race favourite would alter the entire geography of this race.
"Obviously, he's probably the biggest favourite and he's most likely not going to start now. He is the leader of probably also the strongest team at the moment and the fact that he is gone for sure changes their tactics," Asgreen said.
"They're not going to have Wout, who they know is probably the strongest rider at the moment, and who they can rely on at the end to make the difference. So I think we're going to see a very aggressive Jumbo-Visma because I think they still have a lot of strength in the team. I think it's going to change the race if he doesn't end up on the start line."
Manager Patrick Lefevere warned, however, that the absence of Van Aert, so dominant in victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the E3 Saxo Bank Classic, was not necessarily to the benefit of his team, whose travails in recent weeks have been well documented. Van Aert's form meant that his Jumbo-Visma squad were likely to carry the burden of making the race, while his eternal rivalry with Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) had the potential to open up opportunities for others.
"Maybe some competitors will say it's OK he's not there, but I don't think so," Lefevere said. "Mathieu and Wout are always racing à bloc: they don't speculate, they don't play games. And I think we saw in the last few years, when they were competing together, it was sometimes good for us."
Asgreen lone leader
Twelve months ago, the Tour of Flanders was billed as a rematch between Van Aert and Van der Poel after their prize fight of the previous October, but it was instead Asgreen who carried off the spoils, as he had done at E3 Harelbeke a week beforehand.
On that occasion, the Dane was able to benefit from the presence of Julian Alaphilippe, whose rainbow jersey drew attention like moths to a flame. Despite their subdued displays on the cobbles this year, QuickStep-AlphaVinyl have ultimately resisted the temptation to draft Alaphilippe in to bolster their lineup on Sunday, leaving Asgreen as the team's lone leader, a marked difference from their usual, multi-pronged plan of attack, dating back to the Tom Boonen era.
"This year I'm going into the race maybe a bit more as the sole leader. Last year, with Julian coming here as the world champion, the leadership was a bit more shared," Asgreen said. "It means I go into the race a bit differently, but in the end, it's the legs that will decide who goes into the final like last year.
"It obviously makes it more difficult to make the difference. It's not so easy to sneak away anymore, so in the end, you will have to beat the best mano a mano, as they say. But when I went into Flanders last year, I was also among the favourites because of the Classics period I had already had."
Asgreen has been, by some distance, QuickStep-AlphaVinyl's most reliable Classics performer this year. He recovered from COVID-19 to place third at Strade Bianche and he was prominent at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic, where he took 10th after being heavily outnumbered by Jumbo-Visma in the finale. Other mainstays of the team, however, most notably Yves Lampaert and Zdenek Stybar, have been limited by illness in recent weeks.
Lefevere conceded that his team could not expect to race with the same aggression as they did when they won the race with Philippe Gilbert and Niki Terpstra in 2017 and 2018, though he refuted the idea that they would seek simply to follow Van der Poel. He backed Asgreen and Florian Sénéchal to feature in the finale at the Ronde.
"I think we have never focused on the wheel of somebody else, but it's clear that we have lost some power with what has happened in the last weeks," Lefevere said. "You have to be intelligent enough to know when you can take the race in your hands or not. It's also true that we're not used to racing defensively. We're used to making an aggressive race."
Asked if Van der Poel was now the outright favourite for the race, meanwhile, Lefevere politely demurred. "Well, if I'm not wrong, he was second last year and he won two years ago. Mr Asgreen was also second a few years ago and he won last year, so I think it's a nice competition," said Lefevere.
Form is temporary, but ambition, it seems, is permanent. "I hope so," he said. "I saw it in the past. I remember 2001, a long time ago: we didn't get one result beforehand, but then we went 1-2-3 at Paris-Roubaix. So you never know."
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Barry Ryan is European Editor 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 (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.