For the second year in a row, the cancellation of Paris Roubaix has meant that the Tour of Flanders has become the undisputed jewel in the crown of the Cobbled Classics, and the 2021 edition certainly did not disappoint.
It is easy to see another Deceuninck Classics win as something unsurprising, however, this race certainly did deliver a real twist right at the end, with Kasper Asgreen winning a sprint that on paper almost no one would have fancied backing him to win.
Dissecting Asgreen’s win does of course reveal the strength in depth of his team, but perhaps more than the reality of the strength of his teammates, it was the constant threat of the Deceuninck riders that allowed the Dane to stay as fresh as possible, and simply have more in the tank at the end of the two hundred and fifty five-kilometre race.
Riders such as the World Champion Julian Alaphillipe, Het Neiwsblad winner Davide Ballerini and my pre-race favourite Yves Lampaert may have all faded towards the end of the Belgian monument, but the reality of Alaphillipe not being the man for the day did not become apparent until Asgreen was left alone with the strongest riders of the day.
In perhaps the key moment of the race as the pre-final started after the Paterberg, Asgreen having just recovered from a crash with 65km to go, was caught in the third group on the road. At this point as the big guns were going all out to close gaps after the Koppenberg, Deceuninck had their nominal team leader Alaphillipe in a small group of favourites going clear of the fragmenting bunch.
Keeping a cool head, the Danish champion went almost unnoticed as first riders from Israel, and then Ag2r pulled him right back to the front. At this exact moment the two headliners of the day - Van Der Poel, and an increasingly isolated Wout Van Aert, were racing flat out to eliminate as many riders as possible.
Even when Asgreen emerged a little later into what became the winning move with Van Aert, Van Der Poel and two riders from Bahrain, all eyes remained on his teammate Alaphillipe, allowing Asgreen to cagily miss the odd turn and keep the pressure from his own shoulders.
When Asgreen’s perfectly timed attack came at the top of the Kruisberg and he split the group to go clear with the two current superstars of world cycling, despite launching the move he still managed to outfox them by skipping the odd turn with the shrug of shoulders and the threat of the world champion being just behind.
On the final climb of the Kwaremont as Van Aert’s lights went out in front and Alaphillipes did so behind it suddenly became very clear that Asgreen had the legs to win. By which point it was simply too late for Van Der Poel to do anything except back his own sprint at the end of the race.
It’s an oft-repeated phrase that a sprint at the end of a Classic isn’t the same as a sprint in any other race. By calmly forcing his rival to lead out and convincingly take the win, Kasper Asgreen proved that at the end of a monument it isn’t the fastest sprinter, but the strongest rider who will win the day.
Words: Tom Southam
Images: Chris Auld