There’s only one place to start: Wout is out. It’s a shocker. It’s a bummer. It changes everything.
First of all, I’m sad for Wout. It’s really hard because it’s something that was out of his control. No one could see that coming and now he has to digest it all. The disappointment, on a human level, is not to be underestimated.
This is also a dark moment for Belgium. The snow has gone and the sun is out again, but there is a dark cloud hanging over the country as it prepares for one of its biggest sporting occasions, the Tour of Flanders. They have been waiting many years to see something that they thought they would see on Sunday, but now will not: a home winner. OK, Gilbert won in 2017 but he is a Walloon. A Flemish winner is something totally different. The last one was my old friend Tom Boonen. Wout van Aert is from Herentals, the same town as Rik Van Looy. If he’d won, there would surely have been a statue of Wout to go alongside Rik.
But life goes on and the Tour of Flanders goes on. I won’t say it immediately becomes a different race, but the race has lost its reference point and can now go in any number of ways. It will be a different mentality for every single rider on the start line.
That includes Jumbo-Visma. They have lost their leader, their guiding light, the guy who actually made things easier for the rest of them. It will be tough for Tiesj Benoot and Christophe Laporte to step out of his shadow.
For everyone else, they need to focus on their race and the way they want to do things. If you focus on others then you lose track of your own plan. But now the other teams need to draw up their own plans and follow them.
I think it’s clear the race would have been dictated by Jumbo and it’s tough to say if that will still be the case. In a way, it might make sense to stick to their original approach to try and keep their momentum – after all, they still have two very strong leaders. However, they can also play poker and say ‘our leader is out, it’s up to you guys’. There could be a lot of mind games in terms of tactics and who does the work.
I think that could actually play into the hands of their rivals. If I were them, I would not shy away.
I now see room for QuickStep-AlphaVinyl to step up after what has been a terrible spring for them. They are just not in the flow at the moment but you never know. The flow can change so fast. Everything can change overnight, as we’re seeing. That’s sport, that’s bike racing. They suddenly have a huge opportunity. Kasper Asgreen has shown all along that he’s very strong and he’s the defending champion so he knows how to win. I’m sure they will take control at a certain moment.
Even for the other teams, there is an advantage to making their presence felt. I don’t know if Groupama-FDJ will do that but, with the way Stefan Küng is racing, they should. I’d like them to take responsibility and show their belief in him. It starts with this. It’s not about putting pressure on him but it gives him a certain status. When you see his results, he’s always up there, but it’s just the last little bit that’s missing, and that last little bit can be the team putting everything behind you.
For me, Küng belongs in the same bracket as Asgreen, Laporte, and Mathieu van der Poel.
Below them are a bunch of other riders who are the question mark riders. Tom Pidcock should be a four-star favourite but how much influence has his sickness had and is he totally recovered? Tiesj Benoot is another one just below that bracket – he’s strong but how can he finish it off if not alone? Victor Campenaerts has shown he has certain capacities but he’s new to the Classics and can he go the 275km distance?
Beyond that, you have guys like Anthony Turgis, Matej Mohorič, Søren Kragh Andersen, and the Trek guys: Jasper Stuyven and Mads Pedersen. And of course, Tadej Pogačar, who everyone is talking about but who I still see as an outsider.
None of them should lack belief. Maybe beforehand you would struggle to see them as true contenders but the absence of Wout will push these riders to go beyond themselves. I call it super-compensation. You cannot expect miracles, but you can get a little bit of a boost, a bit of luck, a bit of confidence, whatever it is… there are so many things that can come around that can allow these riders to surpass their expectations and reach another level.
It’s hard when you have one favourite who is stronger than the rest and who would have been able to simply ride away on the Kwaremont and Paterberg. That’s not the case now and that makes it more open and tactical – maybe it’s the race where the winning move goes from far. There is suddenly room for all these little extra elements to come into play: super-compensation.
No Wout is a great shame for the race but it’s now wide open.
There is no five-star favourite. He’s gone.
- Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix)
- Kasper Asgreen (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl)
- Christophe Laporte (Jumbo-Visma)
- Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ)
- Tiesj Benoot (Jumbo-Visma)
- Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers)
- Victor Campenaerts (Lotto Soudal)
- Anthony Turgis (TotalEnergies)
- Matej Mohorič (Bahrain Victorious)
- Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates)
- Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo)
- Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo)
- Søren Kragh Andersen (Team DSM)
- Jhonatan Narvaez (Ineos Grenadiers)
- Dylan Van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers)
- Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R Citroën Team)
- Nils Politt (Bora-Hansgrohe)
- Florian Sénéchal (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl)
- Michael Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco)