Matteo Trentin made his Tour of Flanders debut in 2012 as the least battle-hardened member of Tom Boonen’s retinue, but he still helped to shift the piano early in the race before the Belgian hit all the familiar notes to claim a record-equalling third victory in Oudenaarde.
A decade on, Trentin is again in a supporting role at the Tour of Flanders, although the specifics of his task are rather different. As the virtuoso Tadej Pogačar tackles the race for the first time, Trentin lines out as his conductor on the cobbles, even if the Italian preferred to describe his role in more humble terms.
“I’m your guide, like a guide dog,” Trentin laughed as he turned to Pogačar in the Park Hotel in Waregem, where the UAE Team Emirates squad stayed ahead of the Tour of Flanders.
In an interview with Het Nieuwsblad, two-time Ronde winner Peter Van Petegem certainly wasn’t downplaying Trentin’s significance.
“I see one important person on Sunday: Matteo Trentin. He will have to guide Pogačar. In the Ronde, with all those roads, you have to know your place,” said Van Petegem.
“So if Trentin is good, I believe in Pogačar. And if he’s still there on the last time up the Kwaremont…”
Trentin only returned to racing at Gent-Wevelgem after a delayed concussion forced him to abandon Paris-Nice. His sharp early-season form carried him to victory at Le Samyn but he admitted that he had been blunted by the lay-off.
“I’d like to be in front but I’m also realistic,” he said.
“I’m not in the condition I had at Opening Weekend, I’m struggling a bit with recovery after the short climbs. But obviously, we’ve got Tadej, who can certainly go well. The ideal would be for the two of us to be in front when it’s down to 25 or 30 riders, because it’s very important for him to have a teammate. When you’re alone you’re obliged to make choices, which could be right or wrong.”
The Flemish Induction
Pogačar raced the under-23 version of the Tour of Flanders in 2018, placing 15th but his talents have been diverted elsewhere in the intervening period. He returned to the cobbles only this week and the days leading up to the Ronde have been something akin to an induction session in the rudiments of the race.
After sampling the Flemish Ardennes in competition when he placed 10th at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, Pogačar surveyed the finale of the Tour of Flanders during a snow-flecked reconnaissance ride on Friday morning. The primer was a little short for Trentin’s liking. For this year, at least, Pogačar’s prodigious strength may have to compensate for some gaps in his knowledge.
“Of course, you need experience and you need to know the roads, and he was doing other races up to now,” said Trentin.
“You need five days to do the whole recon of the Ronde, and understand all the little places that can be dangerous. But we did a good recon today, and he’s strong enough to get back in position if something doesn’t go right. But, of course, we’ll try not to have this problem.”
At Dwars door Vlaanderen, Pogačar’s inexperience compromised his race. He was caught out behind a crash ahead of Berg Ten Houte and by the time he moved up to the front, the decisive move had forged clear. Pogačar made some striking solo efforts to bridge up to Mathieu van der Poel, Tom Pidcock et al, but the damage was already done by a seemingly innocuous stretch of road near Ronse. Such are the constant, hidden pitfalls of Flemish racing.
“You need to know the points of reference for when to move up and that helps you mentally because you’re behind for some reason but you might be getting stressed needlessly,” said Trentin, who will be expected to beat a path through the Flemish Ardennes for Pogačar at least as far as the Koppenberg with 45km remaining.
Over the final hour of racing, power begins to take precedence over positioning.
“We saw in Gent-Wevelgem that Girmay didn’t know where he was going, but he won the race anyway. So in the finale, above all, the legs carry a certain weight…” Trentin warned.
In the absence of the man of the moment Wout van Aert, Pogačar’s status among the contenders has risen, even if the consensus is that 2020 winner Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) is now the favourite for victory.
Trentin maintained that Jumbo-Visma remained the team to beat, even with Tiesj Benoot and Christope Laporte leading the line instead of Van Aert.
“With or without Van Aert, Jumbo is the strongest team. And I don’t think the presence or absence of Van Aert changes things, because they still have Benoot and other strong riders who are always in front,” he said.
“Van der Poel is back in great form, but I’d say Jumbo are still the favourites.”
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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.