The beauty of cycling is that sometimes, even the best riders in the world can't prevail over superior tactics. And so it was in the E3 Saxo Bank Classic in Harelbeke, where Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), so frequently on the giving end of the punishment, had to bow to Deceuninck-QuickStep on Friday.
Kasper Asgreen, who first attacked 67 kilometres from the line and, being caught after a 54km solo effort, attacked again and held off the six-man chasing group that contained two of his teammates - defending champion Zdenek Stybar and Florian Sénéchal - to take the victory. Even with AG2R Citroën's Greg Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen and Ineos Grenadiers' Dylan van Baarle in the group, Van der Poel, couldn't break the Belgian team's blockade.
"I think the strongest man in the race has won," Van der Poel said. "First he drove it for a long time and then again, and then he kept it up to the finish. Obviously supported by a very strong bloc, but I don't think that detracts much from his performance.
"He also made a very strong impact in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne last year. But what should you do with so many Deceuninck men? If you go get one, the other will attack behind your back. You just know that."
Van der Poel initially had handy cooperation from a rider who is normally his rival, Van Aert, in chasing the team's first attack on the Taaienberg with 80km to go. Van Aert punctured, however, and had to have his Jumbo-Visma teammates nullify the gap to the leading group. But just as he closed in, Asgreen launched his first attack on the Boigneberg.
"Because of that flat tire, I lost a bullet that I missed in the final," Van Aert said. "I already had a slow leak for the Taaienberg, but the group was still so big that it was a bad time to change.
"I waited until it was finally no longer possible. I could not take the corners properly anymore. After that flat tire I did not give up, because I still felt good. Only it was difficult to compete with Deceuninck-QuickStep."
Van der Poel also had to expend a bullet in that moment, admitting he was too far back when QuickStep attacked before the Taaienberg and he had to use precious energy to respond.
"That was an enormous effort. I had to go really deep there. Suddenly they pulled everything on a ribbon, a kilometer before the Taaienberg, and I actually sprinted to the foot to keep the wheel."
Van Aert and Van der Poel were both active in the 12-rider chase of the Danish champion, but on the Tiegemberg with 20km to go, Van Aert was dropped before they closed the gap.
"I also felt good in the final, so I didn't see it coming at the Tiegemberg. My legs were empty and I had to sit down. It was game over," Van Aert said.
Van der Poel was then missing an important ally in the chase and, although the group eventually did close the gap, it was missing an important foil for the Deceuninck-QuickStep blockade.
"I think Wout and I did a good cooperation to close the gap to Asgreen," Van der Poel said. "The problem was if you close it to Asgreen there were still four other riders left in the wheel who didn't have to pedal with the wind today. It was a very difficult situation. It was not enough, I was already pulling for quite a while especially with Wout before the Tiegem. In the wheels it was too easy and I knew it was impossible to drop those guys.
"The wind played an important role - after Stationberg [57km to go] - I think it was a good effort but then we turned left on the big road and there was completely headwind and it was very difficult to make the difference. It was too easy in the wheels as well, and then Deceuninck had a really strong rider in front in Asgreen and the rest didn't really have to work. We knew if we caught Asgreen it would be impossible to drop the other guys."
The E3 Saxo Bank Classic didn't go Van der Poel's way and he said he felt fatigued after Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo, but still has time for some recovery before Dwars door Vlaanderen and his title defense in the Tour of Flanders.
"The Italian block of racing was pretty hard. I noticed when I came back from Milan-San Remo I was pretty tired and had to take some extra rest. I didn't do recon either for this race. Now we will be easy recovering for the last races."
The Deceuninck-QuickStep squad have shown that if they can keep enough riders in the lead they are almost unbeatable and, as Van der Poel said, "we have to think how to create another situation than today."
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