For a race that sits in the shadow of De Ronde, the triumvirate of stars and tactical dynamics that emerged from the Belgian cobbles on Friday were close to racing perfection.
This was only the fifth-ever one-day race where Mathieu van der Poel, Tadej Pogačar and Wout van Aert met and clashed. Of two previous editions of Milan-Sanremo and the Road World Championships, only one of the three had emerged victorious (Van der Poel two weeks ago). Even more remarkably, those three stars had only picked up two further podium places during those five meetings. Something about having the three of them on a startline hasn’t worked out the way we’d hope, until today.
It puts into perspective just how special the 2023 E3 Saxo Classic was. Never before have we had these three era-defining riders, the most exciting in the peloton at this moment in time, off the front on their own in a bike race. Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert are already a mouthwatering duo, but the cycling gods are clearly in a giving mood, deeming us worthy of adding Tadej Pogačar filling for some extra depth of flavour.
When Van der Poel’s teammate Dries De Bondt made the early breakaway, amongst others including Kelland O’Brien and Mathias Norsgaard, you could sense something in the air. Soon enough, just after the halfway mark with 82km to go, and as the peloton hit the Taaienberg, the peloton began to creak, and then Van der Poel attacked and broke the race. Wout van Aert followed immediately, Tadej Pogačar was nowhere to be seen.
“It was a bit hectic with the positioning,” the Slovenian explained afterwards. “I don’t do these races as often, I have to get used to it. I was not in the best position, I was close to the front but not where I was supposed to be, so I lost a little bit of energy. But no such mistakes next Sunday.”
Pogačar’s slip-up was only a brief scare as the group came back together. Another Van der Poel lieutenant then sprung clear with 66km remaining, the new arrival Søren Kragh Andersen, accompanied by one of Wout van Aert’s men Nathan Van Hooydonck, with Matej Mohorič on high alert and tagging along too.
Not long after, another of the Jumbo-Visma squad at the back of the race was left on the floor, hugging his knees in pain. Dylan van Baarle, who has almost managed to reinvent his dark horse tag by moving to the Dutch super team, had crashed alongside Soudal-Quick-Step’s French champion Florian Sénéchal. As the TV director frantically cut between the back and front of the race, Van der Poel launched once more, Van Aert once again attached to his wheel, before Pogačar got the memo and made his way across. Soon this trio formed a sextet with the men up front, Van der Poel and Van Aert provided foils to cancel each other out, Pogačar with a less helpful compatriot in Mohorič.
The scene was set, and Pogačar’s inclusion made it more likely it wouldn’t just be the two vans motoring to the finish line before testing out their chops in a sprint finish. Pogačar stretched his legs on the Kwaremont.
“The Kwarement is the best climb for me, it’s the longest, and there I can always try to be the best,” Pogačar said afterwards. “But with Van der Poel and Wout, it’s a bit hard to drop them anywhere on any climb.”
Pogačar had dragged those two clear on the climb, but the other three chasers soon came back. It was short-lived and they were soon severed again, this time for good.
Is this as good as it gets? That was the question being pondered by spectators as they watched the trio of the race organiser’s dreams sail away to contest the victory. This was a dress rehearsal for The Big One at De Ronde in nine days’ time. These three were checking each other out, seeing where they were all out, and practising their lines before the main show.
As the return to Harelbeke approached, a Jumbo-Visma mechanic clambered out of his moving team car to lubricate van Aert’s cassette. At first glance this seems to be forbidden in the UCI’s rules, resulting in the disqualification of a Belgian rider in Belgium, but true to form enough wiggle room is allowed that van Aert will undoubtedly get away with it. Big boy pants are not included in the UCI Commissaires’ official kit list.
With a couple of kilometres remaining, Pogačar tried to wrench himself free, an unsurprising move given his status as the best rider in the world with the third-best sprint in this particular group. As the finish line came into view the Slovenian tried again, launching from the front.
“It would be even more nice if I had a bit more punch in the end,” Pogačar sighed. “I tried one or two times to attack, but they expected it, they were on my wheel. I hope on Sunday it will be a different story.” E3 Harelbeke is one of the vanishingly few races still without a Slovenian winner.
Instead, it was a re-run of that old faithful – Mathieu van der Poel versus Wout van Aert – Like sticking on an episode of the sitcom Friends, where you know it will be good and you’ll likely see something you missed the last time you saw it.
Van der Poel was all limbs, gnashing at the air in front of him, while van Aert, who in a tactical overhaul appeared willing to let the race happen to him rather than force the issue through brute strength, flew like a bullet and surged clear. Van der Poel relented just before the finish, a quick shake of the head before the nod of a rider who knows he’s been beaten. Van Aert rose, a quick check to the right to see that his rival had definitely been conquered and then a thump of the chest in emphatic celebration.
“It’s a while since I’ve won a race on the road bike,” Van Aert reminded everyone afterwards. In this day and age, August 2022 is ‘a while’. “I’ve had difficult preparation heading into the Classics.”
“Is this the most beautiful E3 podium ever?” the TV interviewer asked.
“I agree because I am in the middle,” Van Aert cackled.
“Hopefully there’s a bigger couch waiting for you,” the journalist continued.
“I hope they’ve solved the problem because it was quite awkward,” answered Van Aert.
The relief was palpable. Van Aert now has the result to send him into his country’s Holy Week, to give him the confidence that he can overcome the mercurial Van der Poel and effervescent Pogačar.
“I felt quite strong, I did a few nice attacks and in the end, Wout van Aert was too strong in the sprint. Hopefully next week I can turn things around,” Van der Poel offered up after the finish.
“For sure, I wanted to win as well today, I’ve never won this race, I was close. First time I was third, now I was second, maybe I have to come back next year.
“It was really nice to race against these guys again,” Van der Poel added, the TV motos picking up the trio conversing on the run-in to the finish, at a time where there didn’t appear anything serious to discuss.
What was spoken about?
“Not much,” van Aert said bluntly. “At least from my side.”
“A sprint with the three of us is nice of course,” Van der Poel continued, attuned to the desires of the cycling public. “Hopefully next week I can win.”
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