Stefan Küng had a teammate on the podium and his own result made it two from Groupama-FDJ in the top-five, but the Swiss rider couldn’t help harbouring a small regret after the Tour of Flanders.
When you see that final stretch, and you think ‘ah maybe everything would have been possible,” said a slightly rueful Swiss rider in the media zone in Oudenaarde.
Küng had gone into the race as Groupama-FDJ’s in-form leader, having finished third at E3 Saxo Bank Classic last Friday and sixth at Dwars door Vlaanderen midweek. Madouas, meanwhile, was self described as the ‘free electron' because despite netting 7th and 11th in those same races he flew slightly under the radar at the Tour of Flanders given his relative lack of background in the cobbled Classics.
It was the free electron who made the defining move on the Koppenberg as one of only two riders able to follow Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates). Küng wasn’t far behind but he slotted into a chasing group and set about covering counter-attacks.
Madouas was forced to relent towards the top of the Oude Kwaremont when Pogačar again forced the issue and dragged Van der Poel clear with him, although the Frenchman linked up with Dylan Van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers) for the run-in and the pair dramatically came back into it as the leading duo stalled in anticipation of the sprint.
Madouas used his momentum to get ahead of Pogačar, although he was unable to get to Van der Poel, and Van Baarle overhauled him for second place. Still, he was delighted to find himself on the podium.
“For me it’s really super. It’s my first podium in a Monument. It’s a bit unexpected. I expected to be up there with the best guys but to be on the podium is really super.”
As Madouas was nearing the line, Küng was winding up behind. He had slipped away with Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Victorious) and Tiesj Benoot (Jumbo-Visma) on the Hotond and they had gone over the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg together before finding company from Teuns’ teammate Fred Wright on the run-in. They got ever so close, and Küng was left to regret not taking one or two more turns.
“In the end I had the feeling I had something left in my legs," said Küng. "I just followed moves then we went away with three. We came back to Wright, then honestly at 10km to go I thought the podium spots were done – these four guys we’re never going to see them again, so these guys I didn’t want to ride through with them because you never know.
“In the end everything comes back together and I still had really good legs. I’m happy for Valentin, he deserves it. We did a great race as team, but yeah, when you see that final stretch and you think ‘ah maybe everything would have been possible'… but we have a worthy winner here.”
Next step, fighting for victory
For Madouas, the podium represented his breakthrough as a cobbled Classics rider. The Frenchman has prioritised the Ardennes Classics since turning professional in 2018 but used the pandemic-restructured season to test himself on the cobbles for the first time in the autumn of 2020.
He was 14th at Flanders that year and returned to finish 39th last year, before catching the eye in a big way this past week. A Monument podium, however, is a huge step up.
“I’ve gone up another level and I hope to go up another and fight for victory at this race. That’ll be one of my big objectives in the coming years,” he said.
Madouas underlined his ability on Flemish cobblestones with a strong showing on the roughest climb of them all, the Koppenberg. While many a seasoned Classics rider was being dropped, he was able to follow Pogačar’s devastating acceleration. On the Oude Kwaremont 10km later, Pogačar hit the gas again, ratcheting it up and dropping first Van Baarle, then Wright and then, towards the top and only after an almighty fight to hold the wheel, Madouas himself.
“There wasn’t much in it,” Madouas said. “On the Kwaremont I was very close to hanging in there. It’s little things – a bit of experience, a bit of strength. I’m ... still developing and in two or three years time I hope to be there with them, and why not next year.”
Madouas kept going over the Paterberg and linked back up with Van Baarle for the run-in, combing to keep their podium hopes alive. At first, it looked like there was only one spot available but a fist-bump on the podium in Oudenaarde signalled a successful collaboration.
“We said to each other ‘all-in’. Third or fourth, we give our all,” Madouas said.
“When I launched my sprint I thought I could win. I came with a lot of speed. I was in front for a moment but I started to cramp and had to slow – I couldn’t push anymore.”
As for Küng, Madouas shared his disappointment.
“Frankly, I’m a bit disappointed for him as well because I think he had the legs to be up front and fight for the win as well. But again, it comes down to small details. That’s racing. We’ll be back.”
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