The cobbled Classics are finally over for 2023, with the weather getting too nice for any serious racing to continue in northern Europe. Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday brought the curtain down on what has been a thrilling series of races in Belgium and northern France, all threaded together by their use of off-tarmac roads at times.
Before we go charging into the Ardennes Classics and then the Grand Tours too fast, though, there is time to look back and try and draw some conclusions from the eight races which make up this block, which started with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad all the way back in February.
Jumbo-Visma won five on the bounce, before ultimately failing on the two biggest stages of all, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. The big three of Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) animated every race they were in, with the latter two winning Roubaix and Flanders respectively.
There were surprises and shocks throughout the eight races from Omloop to Brabantse Pijl, with riders like Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost) and Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar) both announcing themselves in these races. More than anything else, Movistar being good on the cobbles is a fun new thing.
Just seven riders completed every cobbled Classic: Greg van Avermaet, Oliver Naesen and Stan Dewulf (all AG2R Citroën), Tom Van Asbroeck (Israel-Premier Tech), Christophe Noppe (Cofidis), Alex Colman (Flanders Baloise) and Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates). Chapeau to them.
Here’s five lessons we picked up.
Jumbo-Visma were perfect, until they weren’t
There was a point, after Dwars door Vlaanderen and ahead of the Tour of Flanders, where it seemed that Jumbo-Visma were unstoppable when it came to the cobbles.
At Dwars door Vlaanderen, Christophe Laporte won; at Gent-Wevelgem, it was Laporte again, ahead of Wout van Aert; at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Dylan van Baarle triumphed. In the E3 Saxo Classic, Van Aert triumphed, while his teammate Tiesj Benoot won Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne.
This meant that Jumbo-Visma has won five out of the five cobbled Classics they have raced this season, a feat that no other team has achieved this century. Various iterations of Quick-Step have come close, winning three of the five in 2019, 2012 and 2007, but never a clean sweep.
Jumbo were so dominant at Gent-Wevelgem – a WorldTour one-day Classic – that Van Aert had the ability to effectively gift the win to Laporte, which kicked off a whole debate over whether that was good form or not.
The Dutch team just seemed like they would not stop winning, and yet, when it really mattered at Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, it did not happen.
These races are longer and harder, of course, but Van Aert simply did not have the legs to keep up with Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogačar at Flanders, and suffered bad luck at Roubaix, with a puncture at the crucial time.
It was proof that you can have the strongest team in the world, but when it comes down to it, legs and luck are the only things that matter.
Mathieu van der Poel has won almost everything he can on the road
With his victory at Paris-Roubaix last Sunday, Mathieu van der Poel is filling up his palmarès pretty quickly. The Dutch Alpecin-Deceuninck rider has now won Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders (twice), Paris-Roubaix, stages of the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, the Amstel Gold Race, and more.
The only obvious hole on his record, so far, is a World Championship road race win, something that is well within his abilities. As for other races he could win, and possibly should, there are the other cobbled Classics, like Omloop, E3 and Gent-Wevelgem. He has finished in the top-five in the latter two.
This is the level the flying Dutchman is now at, with his almost-complete record. He won’t win a Grand Tour, but could he challenge at Liège-Bastogne-Liège? The fourth Monument is hilly, but then he has won sixth there before, so it doesn’t seem impossible. Il Lombardia will probably be out of his reach, however.
Tadej Pogačar should target Paris-Roubaix
Speaking of someone with a quickly-filling palmarès, Tadej Pogačar ticked another career goal off with a win at the Tour of Flanders in early April. The Slovenian has only raced Flanders twice, but has quickly taken to cobbled racing, with top tens at Dwars door Vlaanderen and the E3 Saxo Classic to add to his Flanders victory.
He has never raced Paris-Roubaix, and is very much the opposite from the typical rider that does well at the Hell of the North. Just look at some of the riders in the top ten last weekend, and you will see the pattern: Stefan Küng, Filippo Ganna, Van der Poel, John Degenkolb and Max Walscheid.
Pogačar is incredibly light compared to these rouleur types, and switching to Roubaix would mean a change in his career and his approach, which to date has centred around the Tour de France. However, if anyone could win all five monuments it would be the UAE Team Emirates rider. He has the willpower and the bike handling skills, he just needs the experience, and possibly the weight.
He already has Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Il Lombardia, and you could see him claiming Milan-San Remo too, so why not target Roubaix?
Ineos Grenadiers promised so much, but failed to deliver
Fifth at Omloop, 24th at Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, 10th at the E3 Saxo Classic, 13th at Gent-Wevelgem, 11th at Dwars door Vlaanderen, 25th at the Tour of Flanders, sixth at Paris-Roubaix and 10th at Brabantse Pijl is not a bad return for Ineos Grenadiers, but it does not live up to the super-team’s expectations.
Injuries and illness hampered the squad, with Tom Pidcock, Magnus Sheffield and Ben Turner being out at various times through the Classics season. The team is also young, and so cannot be relied upon in the same way as Jumbo-Visma’s bank of experienced pros. Pidcock is clearly the star, but he does not seem at quite at the same level as Pogačar, Van der Poel, and Van Aert.
What should be said also is that there evolution into a Classics team is still ongoing, and it won’t be a quick process, if it’s a process the team wants to happen at all.
Despite all this, after a stellar 2022, their 2023 disappointed.
Here come the Americans
Coming into 2023, I think it would have been a surprise for anyone to hear that there would be two Americans in the top ten at the Tour of Flanders. Neilson Powless (EF Education-EasyPost) and Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar) finished fifth and ninth, respectively, in the cobbled Classic, proving that racing in northern Europe is not just for northern Europeans.
It followed two other standout results in other Classics, with Powless finishing on the podium of Dwars, and Jorgenson finishing fourth at the E3 Saxo Classic. It obviously helped that both were in storming form coming in the Belgian block of one-day races, but their best ever performances on the cobbles should be noted.
Both also represent something different for their teams, with neither EF or Movistar known for their prowess in these races – aside for Alberto Bettiol’s victory in the Tour of Flanders for the former back in 2019.
This could be a one-off year, but if Powless and Jorgenson can continue this form, then the Star-Spangled Banner might be heard ringing out at the end of one of these races soon.