Tour of Flanders: 'I know I have the legs' says Van Baarle
Ineos Grenadiers rider among Tour of Flanders favourites after Dwars door Vlaanderen win
The Ineos Grenadiers organisation haven't won a Monument since 2017 when Michal Kwiatkowski claimed Milan-San Remo in a photo finish over Peter Sagan and Julian Alaphilippe but in the organisation's best Classics push in years, Dylan van Baarle has climbed up the rankings of favourites for the Tour of Flanders.
The Dutchman won Dwars door Vlaanderen and his massive 50km solo triumph after strong showings in the E3 Saxo Bank Classic and Gent-Wevelgem demonstrated a shift of mentality.
"After last Sunday in Wevelgem, I thought that it was time to start believing in myself," Van Baarle said in a team press release. "I know I have the legs. It's the switch you have to make when you start to believe in yourself and you know how strong you are. Maybe in these weeks, it's fallen together for me."
Van Baarle narrowly missed the podium of the 2017 Tour of Flanders when he was racing for Cannondale and found himself in an elite chasing group with Greg Van Avermaet and Niki Terpstra behind winner Philippe Gilbert. He's been there or thereabouts for the past five editions but this time he has the morale boost of a recent victory.
"In the past, maybe I've had some bad luck and had the wrong timing. Now everything is going in the right direction. I don't think I feel any different after the win but maybe I'm a little more confident. Form-wise, I should be the same tomorrow. I hope!"
The Ineos Grenadiers have performed far better in stage races and Grand Tours than in the Classics over the past five years - their last cobbled Classic successes were Kwiatkowski's 2016 win in the E3 and Geraint Thomas' the previous year. However, the addition of young riders like Tom Pidcock and Ethan Hayter seems to have breathed fresh life into the one-day racing squad.
"The change of faces has made a big difference among the group," Van Baarle says. "The young guys just want to race, just like they did at U23. We've gone in with a whole different mentality. You can't compare the Classics to a stage race where you do a leadout to a climb and that's it. The main thing we've learned is that, yes, we try to stick together of course, but also it's not a problem if you find your own way. We meet each other on the most important points, but don't stress about it. I think that's the main thing that we've changed.
"We also have the legs to race more aggressively this year. Ethan and Tom, they both like to race, and the racing itself has evolved that way. You have to race hard to get the results. On Wednesday, the way Ethan raced helped set it up for me. It was pretty cool. Now we just have to try and do it again!"
Pidcock is a wildcard for the Tour of Flanders. He's never raced the elite edition and dropped out of his only participation in the U23 race but as a cyclo-cross specialist and a winner of both the U23 and junior Paris-Roubaix - and a fine demonstration in Milan-San Remo and Strade Bianche this spring, he's not one to be counted out.
"The Classics are much more unpredictable than I thought," Pidcock says. "I'm much more used to being able to control my environment in the U23s. Then you step up to the WorldTour and the level is much higher. Any little thing that goes wrong makes a much bigger impact in these races. In Dwars Door I crashed at the worst possible point and there's no way you can get back to the front then.
"It's been a lot of learning and I'll take the positives out of the whole block."
The Ineos squad will be bolstered by the return of Luke Rowe as road captain. Rowe's offseason was setback by a case of COVID-19 but he found good form in the Volta a Catalunya.
"He's so experienced, he's been there so many times, and he says obvious things but when he tells you it stays in your head," Pidcock says of Rowe. "I did worlds last year with him, and then San Remo. After the worlds last year I thought there's nobody better in the world at his job. Then at San Remo again, he was flawless, exactly when we needed him to be. It's invaluable having someone like him in the team."
Rowe might have played the role of co-leader were it not for a mild illness after Catalunya. "It's not ideal. A week ago I'd have said it would be nice to try and get into the final of this race and play a role but now that seems unrealistic," Rowe says. "I knew that before I flew here and I still said to the team I want to be there, I want to be with the group, the guys, and we can decide on my role closer to the race.
"It looks like it will be more of a support role which is a shame because leadership opportunities don't come around too often but you've got to be realistic. If you're at 99% in these races, it's not enough. And when you're supporting guys who, when I can sit here now and say I honestly believe they can do something special tomorrow, then I'll support them to the best of my ability."
Ineos Grenadiers for Tour of Flanders: Tom Pidcock, Leonardo Basso, Owain Doull, Michal Golas, Ethan Hayter, Luke Rowe, Dylan van Baarle
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