Tadej Pogačar raised an arm in protest, but Dylan van Baarle couldn't see it. He was too busy sprinting for the win at the Tour of Flanders, despite having been seemingly irretrievably distanced by Pogačar and Mathieu van der Poel on the final time over the Oude Kwaremont.
With Valentin Madouas for company, Van Baarle had diligently stalked the race's two strongmen all the way to Oudenaarde, and when they stalled within sight of the line, the Ineos rider didn't hesitate. He launched his sprint from a distance, sweeping around Pogačar and then diving for the wheel of Van der Poel.
Van Baarle couldn't quite out-strip his fellow countryman but he still took second place at the Tour of Flanders, while Pogačar somehow contrived to finish fourth in a two-horse race. It was a curious kind of Ronde, even if the late ad-lib didn't prevent the favourite from taking the spoils.
Shortly after the finish, Pogačar's directeur sportif Fabio Baldato visited the race jury to sound out the potential for an appeal, but it was deemed that there had been nothing irregular about Van Baarle's sprint. When Van Baarle passed through the mixed zone a little later, he suggested that Pogačar's annoyance at the finish line was born out of frustration at his own decisions in the final kilometre.
"He wasn't saying congratulations after the finish line," Van Baarle said. "He was a bit angry but maybe a bit frustrated too. I don't think I did anything wrong. I just kept my line and there wasn't any space anymore."
On the interminably straight N453 into Oudenaarde, chasers can usually keep their prey in sight, but more often than not, they remain tantalisingly out of reach. Van Baarle and Madouas knew enough about the ways of the Ronde to assume that they were racing for third place until deep into the final kilometre when suddenly the chance of a lifetime presented itself.
"We always saw them in sight but to turn out like this, I didn't expect it. I was busy with the guys behind, to keep them behind, and Madouas was the same. So we kept on riding," said Van Baarle. "Then suddenly they did a track stand and then we were sprinting for victory. It was special. I still can't believe what happened. You make yourself ready to sprint for third and then end up second."
Van Baarle had kept his hopes of a podium finish alive by maintaining his momentum on the final time up the Kwaremont, even after Pogačar and Van der Poel had surged clear on the steepest section of that uneven sea of cobbles. The Dutchman had anticipated the two favourites by attacking with Fred Wright (Bahrain Victorious) after the first ascent of the Paterberg with 50km remaining, and he had the nous not to try to match their infernal tempo here.
"That's what you plan on the Kwaremont so that you can get over it and still race for a result. It's not about trying to stay with them and maybe explode, it's about managing your effort and making the most out of it," said Van Baarle. "I know my limits and what I'm capable of. I always try to race like that. Yeah, this result is built on experience."
A year ago, Van Baarle won Dwars door Vlaanderen but then fell short at the Ronde. This time out, he struggled to hit his lines in the dress rehearsal in midweek but then outshone Ineos' expected leading man Tom Pidcock in the main event.
"To be honest I felt really shit on Wednesday, but in the past, I've been good at Wednesday races and then not as good in Flanders. This year I swap it around," said Van Baarle. "You just need to stay calm, you know you've done the work, you have a great team around you, so I was ready for this race."
Van Baarle's young teammate Ben Turner had helped to lay the groundwork by joining the dangerous counter-attack that forged clear on the Berendries. After Pogačar reconfigured the race to his liking on the second ascent of the Kwaremont, however, it was Van Baarle who took the initiative, sensing a lull and slipping away with Wright.
Pogačar and Van der Poel, inevitably, would bridge across, together with Madouas, but Van Baarle's nous carried him to another podium finish in a major event after his silver medal at the Leuven World Championships last season.
"I was expecting a hard race, he needed that to make it easier to position himself. It was also in my favour," Van Baarle said of Pogačar's onslaught. "Winning is always nice but this result is also high on my list. I can't choose between Dwars, here and last year's World championships. This means a lot to me."
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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.
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