Race Breakdown: Another exciting weekend with the top battles in Belgium and Spain. Spencer Martin breaks down the action from Gent-Wevelgem and the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and gives us his takeaways, the good, the bad and what it all means for the season.
Wout van Aert – Unstoppable in Wevelgem
Wout van Aert won the cobbled classic Gent-Wevelgem with ease in a reduced bunch sprint out of an elite group of fast-men, with Italian duo Giacomo Nizzolo and Matteo Trentin rounding out the podium. Patience was key after strong cross-tail winds split the race up early, especially in the absence of rival Mathieu van der Poel and the entirety of the Trek-Segafredo and Bora-Hansgrohe teams, and Van Aert played the waiting game to perfection in the final 50-kilometers.
Catalunya domination from INEOS
Meanwhile, across the Pyrenees, Ineos wrapped up their domination of the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, with Adam Yates winning the first European WorldTour stage race of his career and his teammate Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas coming in 2nd and 3rd overall. Yates was far and away the best rider across both the climbs and time trials all week, and his definitive victory over Ineos leaders Thomas and Richard Carapaz will force the British squad to reconsider their Tour de France strategy and potentially make some difficult decisions before June.
- Wout van Aert gets a very impressive win, oddly his first career WorldTour win in Belgium, with a devastating sprint, but also some very cerebral race tactics and an impressive amount of patience.
- He got little support from his Jumbo teammates in the critical points of E3 on Friday, but today his teammate Van Hooydonck was the man of the match. He not only dropped the fastest sprinter in the front group, but his continued presence there meant Van Aert didn’t have to chase down attacks himself and could sit back and save energy for the sprint.
- This performance supports the theory that his late-race struggles on Friday were possibly due to a hunger knock as he missed a bottle feed at 31km-to-go rather than structural issues with his form.
Lotto, DSM and Deceuninck (apart from Bennett) missed the boat
- Deceuninck – Quick-Step won on Friday at E3 with overwhelming swarm tactics, but today was a massive disappointment for the squad. It is almost inconceivable that they would put themselves in a position where their only rider in the front group of a Cobbled Classic is Sam Bennett. It is even more shocking when we consider the reason they were caught out were echeloned early in the day, which is their in-house specialty.
- Even worse is that they looked confused and disoriented during the chase. Instead of making a definite decision to go all-in to pull the front group back, they kept trying to launch counter-attacks to bridge up with small groups to avoid pulling a bunch of riders back up to Bennett. It is a difficult situation for them to manage, but the split-strategy between trying to keep Bennett up-the-road with some of the best Classics riders in the world and contributing to the start-stop pace behind meant they were doomed to lose, and since Bennett was the best bunch sprinter in the race, the risk of hurting his chances by increasing the size of the front group was low.
- Not only did they fail to get a single rider on the same time as the winner, but their top-placed rider was Yves Lampaert in 14th. This inconsistency mirrors their great day at Omloop, followed by a letdown the next day at Kuurne. The fact they are still struggling to show up every race is concerning with only a week before the biggest race of the Spring, the Tour of Flanders.
- If DQS had a bad day, EF-Education First and Team DSM were even worse. Both teams have aspiration at the Spring Classics, but DSM’s top rider was Soren Kragh Andersen in 35th and EF failed to get a single rider inside the top-49 places, with rookie Stefan Bissegger nabbing their best placing, at 50th.
Sam Bennett made the split, but…
For Further Consideration
- A lot will be made of Van Aert out-sprinting the likes of Nizzolo, Colbrelli, and Matthews, but, according to bunch sprint performance data over the last three years, behind Sam Bennett, Van Aert was actually by far the best bunch sprinter in the front group, hence his confidence to take them all to the line.
- Outside of DQS, it is hard to muster up much serious criticism of the other teams and riders who made the front group. Kung was the only rider that lacked a real chance in the sprint finish, so you could argue he shouldn’t have contributed to the pacemaking after the final climb of the Kemmelberg made it clear the race would come down to the sprint. But, with Van Hooydonck in the front group willing to do whatever it took to keep the race together for Van Aert, it isn’t clear if he could have done anything more to get away solo.
- Everyone else had at least a non-zero chance of winning in the sprint, and it would have been silly to risk this with a long-range attack that was almost certainly doomed to fail (see: Kung’s attack with 1.7km remaining).
- Van Aert’s win is impressive, but it will be marked by the absence of Bora-Hansgrohe and Trek-Segafredo, who were pulled from the race due to COVID positives within the team. This meant last year’s winner Mads Pedersen and red-hot Milano-Sanremo champion Jasper Stuyven weren’t able to start. I have to think the race would have played out differently with the inclusion of these two strong teams and possibly wouldn’t have broken up so early.
- Another rider whose absence was notable was Mathieu van der Poel. He didn’t take the race start for unspecified reasons and his inclusion would certainly have shaped the race. It is hard for me to imagine the front group going over the Kemmelberg intact if he was in the race.
- From the outside, Van der Poel’s absence might seem like a timely rest, but if we look deeper, it is a big deal. Only a single rider, Philippe Gilbert, has missed Gent-Wevelgem and won the Tour of Flanders since the race was moved to the week prior in 2010. However, Gilbert did race the now-defunct three-day race Driedaagse De Panne in the week leading up to Flanders. Missing six hours of race-pace riding is critical a week before a similar effort.
A fine show from Adam Yates on Catalunya stage 3
Volta Ciclista a Catalunya Takeaways
After two thrilling one-week stage races in Paris-Nice and Tirreno Adriatico, it was hard not to be disappointed by the Volta a Catalunya. After Adam Yates’ dominant performance on Stage 3, the general classification was never in doubt.
However, despite this GC monotony, there were a few interesting developments throughout the week:
Ineos dominates but their Tour leadership situation is more ambiguous than ever.
- Ineos became the first-ever team to finish 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in the final general classification, with Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas filling out the final two podium slots behind Yates.
- We saw Adam Yates’ time trailing and climbing better than we’ve ever seen before, which will have implications for the team’s Tour de France leadership battle. When Ineos released their 12-man Tour longlist a few months ago, they said Richard Carapaz, Geraint Thomas, and Tao Geoghegan Hart would be splitting leadership and that Yates wouldn’t be heading to the race.
- After this week, where we saw Carapaz struggle to climb with the front group at times and Thomas fail to time trial on the same level as Yates and Porte, the team has to be reconsidering their strategy internally and possibly even regretting calling their shot so early in the year. If they change leadership now, there will certainly be grumblings from riders like Carapaz and Thomas, where if they would have played their cards close to their chest, it wouldn’t appear as though they are changing their strategy on-the-fly.
- With the Yates twins, Simon and Adam, taking the start lines on different teams for the first time in their careers, we got the unique sight of a head-to-head Yates battle. At least for the moment, it appears that Adam is a rider reborn while Simon struggled all week, coming in 8th overall and over a minute behind his twin. This is notable since Simon has always been the better stage racer, and if Adam overtakes his twin in this discipline, we will have compelling evidence that Ineos’ training ethos and system are truly superior to the rest of the peloton.
INEOS Grenadiers top three, but…
The GC Pretenders Disappoint
- The start list wasn’t riddled with GC stars, but there were plenty of riders who are considered elite climbers and threats in overall classification. But, they were absolutely steamrolled by Ineos, who while strong, certainly wasn’t full of riders were considered locks to dominate. Geraint Thomas hasn’t won a stage race since his Tour victory in 2019, Richie Porte hasn’t won a European stage race since Tour de Suisse in 2018 and Adam Yates’ biggest stage race win prior to this was the 2020 UAE Tour.
- These are strong riders, but certainly not destroyers. Riders like Hugh Carthy, Sepp Kuss, Joao Almeida, Simon Yates, Nairo Quintana, Mike Woods, Enric Mas, and Rigoberto Uran have to be doing some introspection after failing to put up any significant fight in the GC and we should keep this in mind when building a list of favorites for future stage races.
- This is a great win for Adam Yates, but success at Catalunya doesn’t automatically mean success later in the year. In the last 10 editions, only two riders have gone on to win a grand tour in the same season they won Catalunya.
Adam Yates – Winner or worker at the Tour?
Sagan is peaking at just the right time.
- Peter Sagan got his first professional race win since having to postpone his season due to a case of COVID with his impressive sprint victory on Stage 6. This really makes things interesting for next weekend, and considering his Bora team was removed from E3 and Gent-Wevelgem at the last second due to a COVID positive, him racing Catalunya, which initially seemed like a strange decision, is actually the best-case scenario for his buildup for Flanders. Watch for the former three-time World Champion to be a dangerous wildcard next weekend.
# Spencer Martin is the author of the cycling-analysis newsletter Beyond the Peloton that breaks down the nuances of each race and answers big picture questions surrounding team and rider performance. Sign up now to get full access to all the available content and race breakdowns. #