Riders on the Paris-Roubaix cobbles in 2023.

It’s almost Classics season: The stars and storylines we’re watching

Opening Weekend is almost here and it is time to get hyped.

Dane Cash
by Dane Cash 22.02.2024 Photography by
Kristof Ramon and Cor Vos
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Regardless of when you think “the real season starts,” Opening Weekend and the start of Classics racing are upon us in a matter of days, and it’s hard not be excited. The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the following day’s Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne kick off a stretch of some of cycling’s oldest events on its most hallowed terrain.

With that in mind, we’ve decided to whip up a little primer for the looming Classics season, defined for this piece as the stretch of races from the Omloop through Paris-Roubaix, where a recognizable cohort of stars tends to contend for the victory whether the race ends on the Via Roma or the velodrome, before the more climber-y types come to the fore the following week in the Netherlands and Wallonia. (Be sure to check out our women’s preview, from Abby Mickey.)

Is this an arbitrary grouping of seemingly diverse races into a single class of events that simultaneously leaves out others that could conceivably be included? Yes. Does that bother us? Not really. Here is what you need to know about the upcoming men’s Classics campaign, which will take us from the pavé to the Poggio and back again: the dates, the stars set to battle for wins, and the storylines that will define the next several weeks.

Tom Pidcock wins Strade Bianche.
Tom Pidcock took his first ever WorldTour one-day win at Strade Bianche in 2023.

The races

Let’s start with what we hope is a useful at-a-glance guide to the major Classics events on the horizon. Through the first week of April, there are nine WorldTour one-day races that fit the bill. By our estimation, two other events are also worthy of inclusion in any list of the key “Classics” of the season, with apologies to Le Samyn, Nokere Koerse, and all the other smaller races that didn’t make the cut.

These are the “Classics” that are going to get the most coverage, and deservedly so:

RaceDateHow to Watch (start times vary)
Omloop Het NieuwsbladSaturday, February 24??Discovery+, ??FloBikes, ??FloBikes
Kuurne-Brussel-KuurneSunday, February 25??Discovery+, ??Max, ??FloBikes
Strade BiancheSaturday, March 2??Discovery+, ??Max, ??SBS, ??FloBikes
Milan-San RemoSaturday, March 16??Discovery+, ??Max, ??SBS, ??FloBikes
Classic Brugge-De PanneWednesday, March 20??Discovery+, ??Max, ??FloBikes
E3 Saxo ClassicFriday, March 22??Discovery+, ??Max, ??FloBikes
Gent-WevelgemSunday, March 24??Discovery+, ??FloBikes, ??SBS, ??FloBikes
Dwars door VlaanderenWednesday, March 27??Discovery+, ??FloBikes, ??FloBikes
Tour of FlandersSunday, March 31??Discovery+, ??FloBikes, ??SBS, ??FloBikes
ScheldeprijsWednesday, April 3??Discovery+, ??FloBikes, ??FloBikes
Paris-RoubaixSunday, April 7??Discovery+, ??Peacock, ??SBS, ??FloBikes
Mainland Europe is covered by either Discovery+ or Eurosport; a number of races don’t have known Australian coverage partners ? but you may be able to access Belgian or Italian coverage with a VPN.

The stars

With some exceptions*, we will see the same big names contesting a majority of the races on the cobbles, the punchy climbs on the Ligurian coast, and the gravel roads of Tuscany. From now through early April, here’s our very unofficial and unscientific assessment of where the stars stand ahead of the one-day races that bring us so much joy.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐: Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert
⭐⭐⭐⭐: Mads Pedersen, Tadej Pogačar*
⭐⭐⭐: Christophe Laporte, Tom Pidcock*
⭐⭐: Matej Mohorič, Kasper Asgreen, Jasper Stuyven, Biniam Girmay, Jasper Philipsen, Dylan van Baarle, Arnaud De Lie, Julian Alaphilippe, Filippo Ganna, Marc Hirschi
⭐: Søren Kragh Andersen, Magnus Cort, Yves Lampaert, Stefan Küng, Nils Politt, Neilson Powless, Matteo Jorgensen, Matteo Trentin, Tiesj Benoot, Alberto Bettiol, Alexander Kristoff, John Degenkolb, Silvan Dillier

*Most of the stars in the list are targeting several of the big races covered here, but Pogačar and Pidcock will be skipping many of them (Pogačar won’t be defending his title at Flanders, for instance), while nonetheless being favorites for the few events they do attend.

Tadej Pogačar, Mathieu van der Poel, and Wout van Aert at E3.
Tadej Pogačar, Mathieu van der Poel, and Wout van Aert battled at E3 in the run-up to the Tour of Flanders last year.

The storylines

Can Visma-Lease a Bike actually win the biggest races?

You could look at the erstwhile Jumbo team’s 2023 Classics campaign in two very different ways. On the one hand, they were utterly dominant through most of the spring one-day calendar, with Wout van Aert, Christophe Laporte, or Dylan van Baarle winning the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3, Gent-Wevelgem, and Dwars door Vlaanderen. On the other hand, they were beaten every time when the stakes were highest: at Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix. No amount of yellow-and-black firepower could best Mathieu van der Poel or Tadej Pogačar.

Christophe Laporte and Wout van Aert go one-two at Gent-Wevelgem.
Christophe Laporte and Wout van Aert went one-two at Gent-Wevelgem.

As such, it feels like the team has something to prove this year, as weird as that might sound. Can they actually win the big one in 2024? That is going to be the question we are asking over and over again even if they go right back to dominating at all the non-Monument events. On the surface, they look like the strongest squad by a considerable margin, with those three heavyweights and helpers to spare, but it’s fair to wonder whether they can live up to the weight of expectations. As lofty a goal as it sounds, they have to come away with a win at at least one, if not two or all three, of San Remo, Flanders, and Roubaix if they want to avoid being seen as a disappointment. At least Pogačar won’t be among Van Aert’s rivals at Flanders this year.

Can Mathieu van der Poel add to his legend while sporting the rainbow bands?

It wasn’t as if Van der Poel, already one of the greatest cyclocross riders of all time and a road superstar, was even close to under-the-radar last season, but now that he has four Monuments to his name and a brightly colored rainbow jersey on his shoulders, he is probably the rider that everyone in the peloton will be watching most closely from the Poggio through to the Carrefour de l’Arbre.

Mathieu van der Poel at the Tour of Flanders.
Mathieu van der Poel “only” managed to finish second at Flanders last year.

For all the “big two” talk between him and Van Aert, he seemed to take a big step towards separating himself from the pack last year, and now he has a chance to really confirm that. If Van der Poel can pick up a fifth Monument win somewhere along the way while rocking the World Champion’s jersey, it will be pretty hard to see anyone else in the peloton as his equal in this sort of race. That is, of course, a lot of pressure, and it’s not as if he is surrounded by superstars helping him share the load. Alpecin-Deceuninck has done a fantastic job building a WorldTour caliber squad that is not (cough, Jasper Philipsen) just Van der Poel, but at the end of the day, it will still come down to Van der Poel himself in the Monuments.

Can Mads Pedersen make it a “big three”?

Just as Van der Poel is in a position to separate himself from the “big two” conversation while Van Aert tries to prove that he really does belong there when it comes to the biggest Classics, Mads Pedersen currently looks like the rider with the best chance of crashing the party and making it a trio like it was last year when Pogačar had more cobblestones on his program. Even before this season, Pedersen’s résumé included a rainbow jersey and a Gent-Wevelgem win to go with two career podium finishes at Flanders, and now it seems even more possible that he could step up given his red-hot start to 2024.

Mads Pedersen at the Tour of Flanders.
Mads Pedersen has finished on the Flanders podium twice so far.

Between the Étoile de Bessèges and the Tour de la Provence, Pedersen raced eight stages. He won half of those stages and took the overall titles at both events. It’s hard to do much better than that with his big targets looming. Given his elite finishing kick, he is one of the few riders who could consistently challenge Van Aert and Van der Poel out of a small group at the end of a long day, and that makes him a real contender for Milan-San Remo even with former San Remo winner Jasper Stuyven also in his team. If he can land a win there or in Flanders or Roubaix, it’ll be time to reevaluate our general tendency to put Van der Poel and Van Aert alone at the top of our lists every week.

Can Soudal-Quick Step reclaim top team status?

Between 2017 and 2021, QuickStep won the Tour of Flanders more often than not winning thanks to the likes of Niki Terpstra, Philippe Gilbert, and Kasper Asgreen. It certainly seemed like the latter rider was destined to be a Classics superstar for years to come after he won De Ronde at age 26 – but since then, both he and his team have watched as others have eclipse them on the pavé.

Kasper Asgreen on the Paterberg.
Kasper Asgreen rode a quieter Classics campaign than he would have hoped for last year. Can he reclaim the form he had back in 2021?

At this point – said point being shut out of the cobbled Classics win column in 2023 – the bar is low enough that even a few wins at the “lesser” races would be a success for this squad that was once such a powerhouse. With Asgreen and Julian Alaphilippe still at an age where we would not expect their form to have declined much (or at all) and a supporting cast that still includes Yves Lampaert and other strong lieutenants, it feels like a reasonable expectation for the squad to be hunting wins at races like the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3. We’ll find out soon enough.

Is Arnaud De Lie the next big thing?

Time waits for no Classics contender, and it’s quite possible that by the end of this spring campaign, even the Van der Poels and Van Aerts will seem like veterans compared to whatever young whippersnapper emerges in the coming weeks. Who will that be? Obviously that’s impossible to say, but there are a few candidates, and Arnaud De Lie leads the way.

Arnaud De Lie wins the Famenne Ardenne Classic.
Arnaud De Lie won the Famenne Ardenne Classic on one leg. Can he get even bigger wins (with both legs) this year?

The 21-year-old “Walloon Bull” is already a punchy climber with a powerful sprint, which was on full display at last year’s GP Québec. Whether his skillset can translate to elite-level wins on the cobbles remains to be seen; he has yet to even make his debut at the Tour of Flanders. Considering his runner-up ride at last year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, though, and the fact that he has been racing in smaller cobbled races for some time despite being so young, there’s little reason to believe that he can’t take the next step this year. It would certainly be a boon for his Lotto Dstny squad, which could use a big winner now that the team has dropped down into the second division.

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