Blazin' Saddles: Advantage Astana as QuickStep stutter and Yates misses out again
With no riders in the Gent-Wevelgem top 10, early season trailblazers Deceuninck-QuickStep dropped behind swashbucklers Astana, who secured their 21st win of the season on Sunday with Miguel Angel Lopez's triumph in the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya. Felix Lowe rounds-up the main talking points from another busy weekend in the pro saddle – including Adam Yates finishing second… again.
It was a trip down memory lane on Sunday as Alexander Kristoff rolled back the years and defied those excess pounds to soar past John Degenkolb and win a thrilling edition of Gent-Wevelgem. Meanwhile, a three-way tussle for glory in Catalunya saw Colombian Lopez hold off Britain's Yates and compatriot Egan Bernal to notch Astana's eight stage race win of the season.
Here's what's everyone's rightly talking about after a pulsating final weekend of action in March.
Alexander Kristoff of Norway and UAE Team Emirates Celebration / John Degenkolb of Germany and Team Trek-Segafredo / during the 81st Gent-Wevelgem In Flanders Fields 2019 a 251,5km race from Deinze to Wevelgem / @Flandersclassics / on March 31, 2019 in WGetty Images
Kristoff keeps wolf from the door
The 31-year-old put in a titanic performance on Sunday, anticipating the accelerations on the Kemmelberg by attacking early to avoid being dropped by the pack. And when the five escapees were reeled in on the home straight, Kristoff proved his class with a second and decisive acceleration which saw him romp to victory.
Heavy wind, a biting chill, relentless attacks over the cobbles, and a high average pace all contributed to cycling's equivalent of a bare-knuckle slugfest when it came down to the final sprint on Menestraat. And to get through 12 rounds of that, Kristoff's numbers showed that it's no harm to be carrying a bit of extra padding.
Victory for the Norwegian provided the statisticians a field day as they grappled to find interesting but ultimately futile factoids that they could throw up on Twitter – like wet loo roll onto walls in the school toilet.
But the only fact that you really need to know regarding the winner is that the experienced Kristoff was by far the strongest rider. Four years after his victory at the Tour of Flanders, he now approaches next weekend's Ronde van Vlaanderan with the luxury of knowing that victory at Wevelgem has already "saved [his] Spring Classics campaign".
QuickStep run out of gas
This next phase of Belgian cobbled races got under way positively for the previously all-conquering Deceuninck-QuickStep team with the in-form Zdenek Stybar being crowned the (frog?) prince of the 63rd E3 BinckBank Classic on Friday after an astonishing earlier effort from team-mate Bob Jungels, who finished fifth.
But Stybar's enormous beer was the only celebratory drink for his QuickStep team as the weekend progressed. The self-styled Wolfpack were on the back foot from the outset after uncharacteristically failing to place any riders in the day's star-studded 20-man break – except the one man you'd want to help chase-down said group: Tim Declercq.
When the group was eventually called to heel and a sprint looked likely, Stybar, Lampaert and Gilbert all worked hard for the team's fast man, Elia Viviani. But the Italian national champion did not have the legs, coming home in 19th place. Viviani was, confoundingly, QuickStep's best finisher on the day.
Afterwards, QuickStep directeur sportif Wilfried Peeters tried to make light of his team's poor showing. But his assertion that "I’m glad I don’t have to drink champagne for once" just underlined why, for all their exciting riding, QuickStep are perhaps not the most popular team in the peloton.
And here's a fact which is worth something: for all their succession of wins, there are some races which the Wolfpack can't seem to master.
What's happened to Peter Sagan?
The curse of the rainbow jersey seems to have hit Peter Sagan a year too late. Having made a hash of things on the Via Roma in last weekend's Milano-Sanremo, the Slovakian champion came home in lowly 32nd place on Sunday as his troubled spring continued.
When the race hit the business end, the three-time Gent-Wevelgem winner looked completely pooped following his exertions in the break earlier in the race.
But should the Bora-Hansgrohe rider actually be praised for trying something different and shaping the race on Sunday?
The calibre of the break – which contained the likes of Matteo Trentin, Niki Terpstra, Mathieu van der Poel, Fernando Gaviria, Wout van Aert, a super strong Luke Rowe, and a terrific Trek quartet of Jasper Stuyven, John Degenkolb, Edward Theuns and Mads Pedersen – suggested that it could well have gone the distance. Having stayed out for 180km, it almost did.
Sagan was right to have been part of this move – especially alongside Bora team-mate Pascal Ackermann. Given the conditions and how hard the race was fought, there was no shame he faded and no huge surprise that Kristoff won. Either way, it all bodes well for the Ronde this coming weekend.
Astana and Deceuninck-QuickStep lead the peloton in Stage 3 of the 99th Volta Ciclista a Catalunya 2019Getty Images
Astana edge ahead of QuickStep thanks to Lopez
An intriguing subplot to this season has been the duel between Astana and QuickStep at the top of the victory charts – a table which Astana now leads by 21 wins to 20 following Miguel Angel Lopez's victory in the Volta a Catalunya.
Lopez became the third Colombian winner of Catalunya after a strong week saw him win stage four at La Molina before putting out all Adam Yates's fires on the final circuit stage in Barcelona.
Having won the Tour Colombia 2.1, Lopez is arguably the form GC rider ahead of May's Giro d'Italia – but has the 25-year-old they call Superman peaked too soon? That's a question for another day. For the moment, all we can say is that Astana have now won eight different stage races this year – making them the 15th team to achieve such a feat in a single season since 2000.
That we are only in April makes this achievement all the stronger. Just three teams have done better before – with Team RadioShack (2011), BMC (2017) and Team Sky (2018) having each won 10 stage races in a single season. It's a record which could be broken in 2019.
Yates getting used to being bridesmaid
Never mind Astana and QuickStep, things are rolling along nicely for Mitchelton-Scott. Third in the team standings with 16 wins this season, the Australian outfit had a clean-sweep on the final podium of the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali on Sunday with Lucas Hamilton finishing ahead of Damien Howsen and Nick Shultz.
Matteo Trentin also continued his encouraging (yet frustrating) run in the spring classics with a brace of seventh-places in E3 and Gent-Wevelgem.
But it was Adam Yates's form in Catalunya which caught the eye – the Briton having won stage 3 at Vallter 2000 before pushing Lopez all the way in the overall battle.
Despite a series of attacks on the final stage in Barcelona alongside his brother Simon, Yates couldn't overturn his 14-second deficit and settled for a successive second-place on the final podium following his final-day disappointment in Tirreno-Adriatico earlier in the month.
Yates's form bodes well ahead of the Ardennes and the Tour de France, where he will be Mitchelton-Scott's protected GC rider following Simon's tilt at the Giro in May. Between them, the Yates twins have six wins this season – making them very much the in-form sibling pairing going into Grand Tour season. Directeur sportif Julian Dean is excited about their prospects.
"One thing about Adam and Simon is they are racers, they know what to do and when to do it and that is the one of the exciting things about working with them. They really have the racing instinct and we saw that today."
At least Froome has a sense of humour
A tricky week in Catalunya for the four-time Tour de France champion started with some nasty road rash and ended with Froome finishing almost an hour and a half down on GC just seven positions from the bottom.
"He is still the greatest Tour rider of our generation and continues to be. He is my favourite for the Tour de France this year. He is the old master at this now. He knows how to prepare to win a Grand Tour."
As for the man himself, well Froome showed last July that he's capable of putting in selfless performances for others when things aren't going well – helping guide team-mate Geraint Thomas to glory in the Tour.
After his crash last week, Froome altered his ambitions and rode in the service of Egan Bernal, who finished third after more strong performances in the mountains.
And when Bernal picked up a puncture on the home straight in Saturday's sixth stage, who was on hand to give the Paris-Nice winner a lift to the Sky team bus?
It's encouraging to see Froome joke about a poor situation and it shows a level of maturity that, perhaps, his predecessor Wiggins lacked. For if Bernal makes the Team INEOS selection for the Tour in July, Froome will certainly need such services returned.