Predicting bike races is a mug’s game. A game made easier this year by the utter spanking dominance of Wout Van Aert and Mathieu Van der Poel, but a mug’s game nonetheless. Over the course of a two-hundred-and-fifty-kilometre Tour of Flanders, for example, all manner of mishap and misadventure can derail a challenge. When asked for a prediction we could all chuck a couple of likely names into the hat but this is a race rife with variables.
“Van Aert, Van der Poel, or someone from (Belgian super-team) Quickstep” was my stock response to anyone asking. Delivered from a perched position, astride a fence, the splinters of a hedged bet, to mix my metaphors, piercing my arse. My answer being the equivalent of a poker player doing the maths with a royal flush in his hand and giving me an approximate and rather smug 87% chance of being right.
But even then, from such a position of statistical safety, the utter surprise of a final kilometre can derail things. After the climbs and the selections, the hour by hour whittling of legs and depleting of energy, we had the aforementioned Van der Poel looking like an assassin, with the highly competent Danish champ and recent winner of the E3 Saxo Bank Classic Kasper Asgreen, for company.
He can’t beat Van der Poel in a sprint
They entered the finish at Oudenaarde alone, the chasing group of Van Aert, Alaphilippe, and the rest, too far gone. It was down to two. Van der Poel and a Quickstep rider.
From here, I made a tactical error. Rather than take my guaranteed predicted win I upped the ante and tried to pick a winner. As they entered the final five hundred metres I leant across to my long suffering life partner to confirm, with what I felt to be a certain gravitas, that: “Asgreen’s only chance was an attack. He cannot beat Van der Poel in a sprint.”
And then Asgreen did something bloody marvelous. He sat on the Dutchman’s wheel and waited. Van der Poel looked back, and checked, and then looked again, and again, and once more, waiting for Asgreen to launch. The Dane stayed right where he was thank-you-very-much.
The tension increased. The finish line got closer. Van der Poel, the instinctive, natural racer, given all the time in the world to think long and hard about his certain win.
And then, less than two hundred metres to go, Van der Poel launched. Asgreen responded. Locked together, pedal for pedal, the strain of an entire Tour of Flanders in their legs, and VDP started to wobble. His body crumpled. Asgreen was past, and surging clear, a little nod from The Greatest Cyclist In The World™ to say “yes, Kasper, you’ve won this fair and square.”
Peaks need troughs
All of which is a damn good thing. Predictability being the last thing we need after five hours spent on the settee and with a littered wingspan of snacks and drinks telling a story of inactivity. It’s one thing to waste a perfectly serviceable Easter Sunday in front of the telly, another entirely to do so with full knowledge of the outcome in advance.
And this is not me throwing shade on Mathieu Van der Poel. The man is an absolute specimen. A weapon. Few set the pulse racing like he does. But I don’t want to watch domination. His win at Strade Bianche back in March was a thing of utter, spine tingling beaty, but if he did that every time he raced the spectacle would lose its shine.
The more human he appears, the higher those sparkling highs will be.Embed from Getty Images
Peaks need troughs, if that’s the right word to describe second place at arguably the biggest one-day classic on the pro cycling calendar. And it applies to Asgreen too. He won E3 last week, now he’s won Flanders, so we need him to go off the boil and show a bit of weakness. Allow us to dwell on the wonder of “that time he beat Van der Poel in a sprint.” Give someone else, quite frankly, a chance.
(Top Image: Hejsa, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)