Bike racing is the ultimate test of physical endurance, but riding monuments is all in the mind.
First comes the talk, the hype train that builds up pace for weeks, then comes barreling into the station at a million miles an hour: Julian Alaphilippe back to right the wrongs of last year, Mathieu van der Poel looking a bit secondhand at Dwars door Vlaanderen, Wout van Aert driven by the urge to beat his rival more than by the desire to win himself.
It all rumbles on, so much speculation about the inner workings of the minds wrapped up inside the bodies, the workings of which we can easily observe on instant replay, and in infinitesimal detail via the magic of HD.
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How does all this talk impact the race? Maybe the speculation has no impact whatsoever. Maybe it makes the rider angry when he is badmouthed. Maybe it puts the wind in his sails when he is mentioned among the favourites.
Maybe it’s all three?
Riders have hundreds of opportunities to win each season. Every time they start there’s a chance, after all. But there are only five monuments. Only five chances to join one of cycling’s most exclusive clubs. And truly there are not many riders who can really win all five. Not in the modern era of hyper-specialisation.
And with one of the monuments postponed to the end of the year, when who knows what kind of shape any of us will be in, let alone what sort of form each individual will have nor how the peloton will be constituted, it feels like monuments are even scarcer than usual this spring. There must be an incredible sense of pressure to perform, a desire to do ones best, a fear of wasting all that preparation.
So finally the race begins and it is all tension. The peloton rumbles along like a ball of static electricity; small surges of riders leap out of the mass in an effort to make their mark on the contest. If your mind isn’t right at this point, you might pull the brakes a little too hard, or react too violently to someone else making just such a mistake. The race is over for you both in a flash, like it was for Otto Vergaerde and Yevgeniy Fedorov. A moment of nerves, a spark of anger, the cold, dispassionate verdict of the race jury coming crackling over race radio.

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Michael Schär could have won the race. He was by no means a favourite, but on his most magnificent of days he might’ve stood a chance; in the right move, given just a little bit too much leeway by the overconfident elite group. Instead, though, he lost his head – just for a moment – and chucked away a bidon.
It’s against the rules now to throw a bottle to a fan, and the UCI is adamant about making these rules stick. As it turns out, they stick like a half-empty gel wrapper does to the surface of a well-laid road. Schär must surely have known about the rule changes, AG2R Citroën must surely have been over them in the team meeting before the race, but that moment’s inattention, that second where he slipped back into a habit formed across an eighteen-year career, ruled him out of the race.
In all likelihood, Schär would never have come close to the front of the race – he was here in Flanders to work for the leaders – but nevertheless, he was in the race, until his head wasn’t.

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The mind is what causes the crashes too, like the one that brought down Alaphilippe and Kasper Asgreen – the one from which the latter recovered and the former seemingly did not. They’re not caused by physical failings, but rather brief blips of concentration that drop like little pebbles into the pond that is the peloton. The rider who causes the crash is rarely the worst affected; that dismal honour goes to the one two or three places back in the bunch, for whom the tiny ripple has become a tsunami of consequence. After the crash, Asgreen surged back to the peloton. Alaphilippe came back too, only to spring out of the other end and go on the attack. His early efforts fizzled out in the end, with a 42nd place. Asgreen’s did not.
In the final part of a monument, the body inserts itself back into the conversation. Incredible as it may seem, to a professional rider cycling 200 kilometres is nothing. It’s a simple quotidian task, like changing a lightbulb. But in the finale of a monument, the body screams back at the mind, outraged by the demands placed upon it to perform inhuman feats.
The power of the mind to quiet the body can sometimes be the difference between glory and obscurity, the ability in one vital instant to dig a little bit deeper. We saw Van der Poel and Asgreen go clear atop the Kwaremont on the second time up, and then go clear again at the summit of the penultimate Paterberg ascent. Each time, they were clawed back, brought firmly into the fold. Finally, when they reached the Kwaremont one last time and Van der Poel dropped one of his trademark watt bombs, Van Aert’s mind could not overcome what every part of his body was screaming at him. ‘Stop, Wout,’ it said. ‘There will be other days.’
And there probably will be, for Van Aert is a prodigious talent.
So it was left to Asgreen and Van der Poel to fight it out. Mind against mind, man against man. The conventional wisdom said Asgreen would lose any sprint against Van der Poel, that the Dane must attack early and leave the Dutchman in his dust if he were to stand any chance. Armchair directors around the world said what they knew to be true, that Asgreen could never win if he brought Van der Poel with him to the finishing straight.
Asgreen knew better.

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He knew how good his legs felt, and he knew he could afford to bring his rival to the end. He knew that he only needed to be in the wheel of the defending champ at 1,800m out, and he would become the new champ.
They lit it up. They drag raced side-by-side, neither looking for the other’s slipstream. They pushed to the very limit of their physical selves, and then in one final act of the almighty mind, Van der Poel saw that he was beaten and stopped pedalling. With 40 metres of the race still to go, his mind said, ‘You can’t win this’, and the thought was so alien to Mathieu that it stopped him dead.

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