Rarely, if ever, have two riders with such limited cobbled Classics experience been so heavily tipped for success at the Tour of Flanders, but then Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel are not quite like other riders.
Their seamless conversion from cyclo-cross to road racing has been one of the Spring’s most compelling storylines, with their long-running duel on grass and mud now spilling over into the cobbles and hills of Flanders.
Few can appreciate their achievement better than Zdenek Stybar, himself among the top tier of favourites for the Ronde. The Czech made that same transition after joining what was then QuickStep in 2011, but his induction process was a rather more gradual affair.
Stybar raced sparingly on the road in 2011 and after following a full cyclo-cross programme that winter, his 2012 road season did not begin until the Four Days of Dunkirk in May. Only in 2013, after reducing his diet of cyclo-cross races to the minimum, did he make the step up to riding the cobbled Classics. He showed his dexterity further by winning a third cyclo-cross title in 2014, but in the years since, Stybar’s focus has been resolutely on the road.
Van Aert and Van der Poel, by contrast, have eschewed received wisdom by toggling freely between cyclo-cross and road. The pair duelled in the mud all through the winter, with Van der Poel denying Van Aert a fourth successive world title, and now they find themselves shoulder to shoulder in the Classics.
“I always believed that cyclo-cross was very good preparation for all your cycling life,” Stybar said on Friday.
“In cyclo-cross, you learn bike handling, you get explosivity and technique. When you see what Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel are doing now on the road and realise they that they did the whole cyclo-cross season, well, I have a lot of respect for this, because I know how hard it is mentally as well as physically. I’m really happy they are on this level.”
After a striking debut with Crelan-Charles last Spring, Van Aert, now of Jumbo-Visma, has been among the strongest one-day riders in the world this year, placing second at the E3 BinckBank Classic, third at Strade Bianche and sixth in his first Milan-San Remo.
Not to be outdone, Van der Poel has hit the ground running in his first Classics campaign in the colours of Corendon-Circus. The Dutch youngster showcased his potential by placing fourth in Gent-Wevelgem, his first-ever WorldTour race, and the claiming victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen. Both riders now line out among the favourites for the Tour of Flanders.
“It’s not really a big surprise, but honestly I didn’t expect that Mathieu would win directly his first WorldTour race,” Stybar said.
“I expected he would be there in the finals, the same with Wout van Aert, because last year what he did was really impressive. This year, with the way he’s riding, he’s the future of the Classics. I’m really happy for this, that he is coming out of cyclo-cross and can go on the road.”
Boonen was impressed back in 2013
Stybar’s words were echoed by his former teammate Tom Boonen in the pages of Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday. In his teens and early 20s, Van Aert raced fitfully on the road with an eye to the cyclo-cross campaigns of the winter, and Boonen took note of his potential six years ago.
“The first time I thought he was the next big thing dates from Heistse Pijl in 2013,” Boonen told Het Nieuwsblad.
“I went away early, and about fifteen or twenty people came back. At a certain point, we needed to ride, and I only had one or two teammates with me. I said: ‘Wout, just give it one turn.’ He started driving, and man... He had yet to turn nineteen.”
Junior world champion on the road in Florence in 2013 and grandson of Raymond Poulidor, Van der Poel’s talent as a road rider was always apparent, but the Dutchman has long been adamant that he will follow a multi-disciplinary path – like his father Adrie – until at least the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where he is targeting mountain bike gold.
He has consistently enjoyed road success since leaving the junior ranks, albeit a rung or two below WorldTour level. His stock has risen exponentially after his first two races in the top flight.
“Mathieu and Wout can be very happy that they always had each other. They have always pushed each other to the limit,” Boonen said. “In Gent-Wevelgem, Mathieu came to the fore for the first time, and he also won Dwars door Vlaanderen, but the Ronde is something else. But once he decides to fully choose the road after Tokyo 2020 and starts riding for a decent team, then the top duo for the years to come is already known.”
Still some things to learn
Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) was sufficiently impressed by Van Aert’s displays on the cobbles this year and last to name him among the top three favourites for the Tour of Flanders, together with Stybar and Bob Jungels. Van Aert’s status is all the more remarkable given that he has clocked up just five days of racing on the road thus far in 2019.
“I’d put Van der Poel a little under those three. I saw it Dwars, but it's still a little different than Flanders. He's a super good rider and he's with the favourites, but he’s not a top favourite,” said Van Avermaet. “He still has – hopefully – some things to learn.”
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is, like Van der Poel, a Ronde debutant, and he spoke admiringly of the Dutchman’s victory in Dwars door Vlaanderen in midweek.
“I see him as a rider with tremendous class,” Valverde said. “You see him on the bike and it strikes you that he has a lot of quality, a lot of class, the way he moves on the bike. For the little time he’s been on the road, doing races with such distance, it’s true, he has surprised me. He’s going to be a phenomenon. Well, he already is.”
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