What we learned on Opening Weekend

by William Fotheringham

Words by William Fotheringham | Photo: SWpix.com

Plus ca change

A new season, and it’s business as usual for Deceuninck-Quickstep and SDWorx, the latter proving that a change of sponsor (from Boels-Dolmans) and jersey (to a purple that’s unfortunately easy to confuse with Liv Racing) doesn’t mean anything else need alter. Their Omloop wins were different in nature, with SDWorx profiting from the immense strength of Anna van der Breggen, whose turns at the front were brutal, as she tried, successfully, to keep Annemiek van Vleuten at bay; she looked an almost certain winner from the first split in the field, and once her team mate Demi Vollering went up the road over the Muur it was obvious what was coming next.

At DQS, on the other hand, we all love to watch the big stars like Alaphilippe and Bennett, but the team’s most impressive aspect, I think, is the almost supernatural ability of relatively unsung riders like Florian Senechal, Yves Lampaert and Kasper Asgreen to create a win when the opportunity beckons. At Omloop it happened to be for Davide Ballerini, but the DQS way is that on most days it could be pretty much anyone; for them to be so poorly represented in the front groups at Kuurne on Sunday was rare indeed. In their different ways, both teams make winning look easy, although it’s anything but: just ask their rivals.

You don’t have to be WorldTour to make an impact

With three riders in the first 20, if there had been a team prize at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, it would have gone to new second division team Uno-X (thanks to commentator Jose Been for tweeting this excellent factoid), which is essentially a Norwegian development squad that has moved up from division three this year. One rider in the break that was caught at the death, two in the next group. Last time I was in Belgian, a massive proportion of the field in the amateur kermesse I visited seemed to be Norwegian, so clearly Uno-X aren’t short of raw material, but nonetheless nice work for that very visible yellow jersey.

Mads Pedersen wins at Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, with Tom Pidcock third.

Mads Pedersen was no fluke world champion (reprise)

The young Dane’s time in the rainbow jersey – which he won to widespread surprise in Harrogate in 2019 – was cruelly curtailed by Covid; he barely got to wear the tunic, and his single win while wearing it was a stage of the Tour of Poland. A unique twist for the fabled curse. But almost immediately he was out of the stripes, he landed Ghent-Wevelgem last October, from a group that was far smaller in number than at Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. He’s canny, fast, has nerves of steel – did anyone see him at Kuurne before the final 500m? – and with a true killer instinct: he will be a dangerman when the going gets tough at Paris-Nice next week.

Ian Stannard has retired but the next wave of UK Classics riders is here

There’s not been the faintest scintilla of doubt about Tom Pidcock’s ability since he finished fifth in the junior world cross championship in 2016 (prior to winning it a year later); the only question was how quickly – not if – he’d make an impact at WorldTour level. The answer came after the strongmen made their move on the Molenberg at Omloop, when Pidcock bridged in spectacular style, quite something when the big boys are flat stick in front. Third in the group sprint on Sunday at Kuurne makes him one of the favourites for Strade Bianche, but he wasn’t the only new British WorldTour kid to make an impact, with Jake Stewart moving seamlessly from FDJ’s development team to take second at Omloop. A worthy mention for Ethan Hayter, who also figured in the front group at Omloop until an unlucky late crash.

Emma Norsgaard looks like the real deal

The name of the former world junior championship silver medallist and current Danish national champion has been prominent in 2021 season previews as a rider to watch, and indeed Norsgaard, 21, looks to have kicked on nicely over the off season, if her second place at Omloop is anything to go by. Fortunate for Movistar, as Annemiek van Vleuten proved she is not infallible, missing the key split. It will be fascinating to see how the pair combine when they end up at the sharp end together. With any luck, a winning partnership with Norsgaard’s speed and AVV’s legendary strength.

Strade Bianche could be a cracker

Among the men, Van der Poel, Alaphilippe, Pidcock, all clearly in searing form. Wout van Aert to come back from his (brief) winter lay-off. This all bodes extremely well whatever the weather, which we can be sure won’t be as hot as last year’s August races. Head on the block time: Van der Poel will win the men’s race. Head on the block again: in the women’s race the Vans (der Breggen and van Vleuten) will cancel each other out, and it will go to a long shot. I’d put a cheeky five quid on Lotte Kopecky, maybe, or Elisa Longo Borghini.

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