Flanders eve news roundup

Wout's near miss, Pog plans a solo album, and Jumbo's under pressure (literally) in our pre-race roundup.

It’s almost time. These guys are ready; are you? Photo © Cor Vos

In commenting on why he thought Wout van Aert gifting Gent-Wevelgem to his Jumbo-Visma teammate Christophe Laporte was a bad idea, three-time Tour of Flanders winner turned commentator Tom Boonen listed a particular hypothetical: that an early crash in Flanders could ruin Van Aert’s chances.

Turned out, Boonen was not far off. Van Aert was nearly run over by a truck on a pre-Flanders training ride. As ex-pro Jan Bakelants told it, he was riding with Van Aert and cyclocross pro Daan Soete when they were overtaken by a cement mixer which cut them off, sending them off the road. “Wout was almost dead,” Bakelants told Boonen and Dirk De Wolf on the Wielerclub Wattage podcast. “He literally almost went under the wheels.”

Van Aert wasn’t too shaken up apparently; he responded to Bakelants’ version by saying he’d received a ton of worried text messages – including from his own wife – after the news got out. “It was certainly not a safe situation, but I was not nearly dead either.” 

I’m fine, we’re fine, everything’s fine. How are you? Wout Van Aert enjoys some cement-truck free roads on a Flanders recon, alongside the Ceratizit-WNT women’s team (not, ahem, cyclotourists as Het Laatste Nieuws lazily assumed). Photo © Cor Vos

But the incident comes less than a week after UAE Team Emirates’ Juan Sebastian Molano was hit head-on in a training crash the day before Gent-Wevelgem, and Van Aert acknowledged the danger that all cyclists – not only pros – face while riding.  “These are incidents that unfortunately happen almost every day on the road,” he said. 

Pogačar hopes to release a solo album

With memories of E3 Prijs fresh in his mind, UAE Team Emirates’ leader Tadej Pogačar knows he can’t drag Van Aert and two-time Flanders winner Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) to the line.

Pog fully realizes that pacing these two up the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg isn’t a successful tactic. Photo © Cor Vos

“If I want to win, I have to arrive alone,” he said pre-race. If such a move comes (and it likely will if he’s got the legs), the Oude Kwaremont is a good spot for it. “It’s the longest climb and the cobbles last until the very end,” he said. “The Paterberg is also nice, but it’s a bit too short.” The question, of course, is whether he’s already gone by then. “I don’t know where and when I will attack,” he said.

If Pogačar does manage to drop the rest en route to a solo win, the victory will almost certainly lead to questions about whether he wants to win all five Monuments. Escape Collective columnist Andy McGrath has that covered in detail.

Jumbo testing variable tire pressure setup

Jumbo-Visma is reportedly trialling the Gravaa KAPS tire-pressure management system at the cobbled Classics. Edoardo Affini ran the setup at Dwars door Vlaanderen (the only one of Jumbo’s riders to do so).

The Gravaa system runs off a small electric pump in a proprietary hub, with a line running to the company’s Presta valve. A wireless handlebar remote lets the rider adjust tire pressure up or down as desired, and the company claims that pressure readout is available on computers via ANT+ and Bluetooth. 

Variable pressure is probably not a big issue for Flanders, where the cobbles are relatively smooth, but it could be a benefit at Paris-Roubaix. The Hell of the North’s course is unique in that it features sectors in quick succession where a rider would benefit from lower pressure, interspersed with long stretches of pavement where optimal rolling resistance might come from a slightly higher pressure.

Check that front wheel: Edoardo Affini tests Gravaa’s KAPS tire-pressure management system at the 2023 Dwars door Vlaanderen. Note the chunky hub and hose leading to the valve stem. Photo © Cor Vos

Another key reason we likely won’t see teams using this system at Flanders is the weight penalty: Gravaa’s R-40/44 wheels, which use tubeless-ready Reserve rims (the same brand sponsors Jumbo), are listed at 1,970 grams per pair, which is 500-600 grams more than the standard Reserve 40/44 set depending on hub choice. At Roubaix, however, the course is flat enough that the extra weight won’t matter; it’s also concentrated at the hub, where it has far less effect on rotational inertia.

Speaking of rotation, that’s what powers the membrane pump (similar to how a dynamo hub powers a light, although the Gravaa hub has a battery too). But Gravaa claims the energy cost is minimal: just four watts of extra drag, and only during active inflation. Inflation rate varies with tire volume, but should be about under a minute for the amount riders would inflate or deflate a 30-32mm tire. Will we see it at Roubaix? Who knows – recall DSM tested a similar system last year before opting to go without on race day.

Who can beat SD Worx?

If there’s an analog to Jumbo’s dominance of men’s cobble racing, surely it’s SD Worx, with wins in two of the three WWT cobble races so far, including a 1-2 finish at Het Nieuwsblad, plus Demi Vollering’s win in the .PRO-ranked Dwars door Vlaanderen. Like Jumbo, SD Worx confounds not just because of team depth, but the ways they can win.

All eyes will be on defending champion Lotte Kopecky and her SD Worx teammates, which might make for defensive racing. Photo © Cor Vos

Flanders certainly won’t end in a bunch sprint (sorry Lorena Wiebes), but with defending champion Lotte Kopecky’s versatility, Vollering’s power on punchy climbs, and Marlen Reusser’s willingness (and ability) to make a long-range attack stick, they’re all but impossible to solve. But an SD victory is far from a foregone conclusion, as Movistar, Trek-Segafredo, and DSM in particular will bring multiple options themselves. Find out more in our in-depth preview.

Here come the Americans

Don’t look now but American pro road racing, left allllllmost for dead, might just be mostly dead, not all dead, and as we all know, mostly dead is still slightly alive. Maybe more than slightly. 

Hope in Flanders comes from the trio of Movistar’s Matteo Jorgenson, EF Education-EasyPost’s Neilson Powless, and DSM’s Megan Jastrab. Jorgenson and Powless are, respectively, 23 and 26, and versatile all-arounders who defy easy characterization. They’re also both flying right now. Jorgenson took his first stage-race win as a pro at February’s Tour of Oman, fifth overall at Paris-Nice, and then was the best rider besides the Three Tenors at E3 Prijs, aka the mini-Tour of Flanders.

Powless is on his own tear: a win at Etoile des Bessèges followed by sixth overall at Paris-Nice, and then 7that Milan-San Remo and third at Dwars, where he led the field across the line right on the rear wheel of surprise second-place finisher Oier Lazkano (Movistar).

Team DSM’s Megan Jastrab (far left) leads the field across the line for second place at the 2023 Gent-Wevelem. Photo © Cor Vos

Jastrab, who is on her third season with DSM but is only 21, has a pair of top-five finishes at Brugge-De Panne and Gent-Wevelgem, where she won the field sprint behind Reusser’s solo victory. Remarkably, all three riders are Flanders debutants, so let’s maybe not get too carried away. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any of them on the front late in the action, and we haven’t even mentioned Ineos Grenadiers’ Magnus Sheffield.

Weather forecast: dry, but possibly breezy

The weekend starts rainy in Belgium, but will dry up overnight Saturday to Sunday. There will likely be slick spots still on the bergs, but no precipitation is expected on race day. Skies will start cloudy and gradually clear off, but keep an eye on rising winds: forecasts call for a steady 10-15 mph (15-25 kph) breeze from the north-northeast, gusting as high as 25 mph/40 kph. If that forecast holds, it could make for more defensive racing.

Roster odds … and ends

As you might expect, two-time Flanders winner Van der Poel carries the best odds for victory Sunday followed closely by Van Aert and Pogačar. But Ineos Grenadiers’ Tom Pidcock way down sixth at 20/1 odds, behind 2021 Flanders winner Kasper Asgreen (Soudal Quick-Step)? That sounds like a miss to us. Similarly, SD Worx dominates the women’s odds boards, with Kopecky-Vollering-Reusser in quick succession. Movistar’s Annemiek van Vleuten lurks in fourth, with Jumbo’s Marianne Vos close behind. How will it work out Sunday? We’ll see.

Other bits: Tim Merlier of Soudal Quick-Step is 30, Belgian national road champion, and a solid cobbles rider, but will amazingly be making only his first start in de Ronde on Sunday. At the other end is Ag2r-Citroën’s Greg Van Avermaet, making his 15th start; he has four podium finishes, but is yet to get a win. Van Avermaet is also the second-oldest starter behind Q36.5’s Jack Bauer.

At least four former winners (Van der Poel, TotalEnergies’ Peter Sagan, Soudal Quick-Step’s Kasper Asgreen, and Uno-X’s Alexander Kristoff) will take part, but Van der Poel is the only one with multiple victories. A fifth winner, EF’s Alberto Bettiol, may be a late scratch with a fever, but is still on the provisional start list as of Friday evening.

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