There’s something very special about the moments between teammates on their way to certain victory. Two near-identical jerseys, preferably filthy, and two beaming riders pulling shoulder to shoulder, offering a pat on the back and even a momentary embrace as they begin to take in what they’ve done.
This is something we’ve seen really quite often in recent seasons. As for who gets to cross the line first, we’ve had a number of eventualities: the de facto leader who’s been targeting the race; the decision to reward a workhorse; rock paper scissors; surprise battle to the line…
On Sunday it was a two-up involving Wout van Aert and Christophe Laporte after attacking with 53km to go, and this time, it went Laporte’s way. It was right out of the Jumbo-Visma scrapbook but no one else was able to do anything.
What’s more, there’s something about riding to the line with a teammate that brings Van Aert closer to elation than even his own victory ordinarily provides. That’s special, if a little surprising, and perhaps goes to show just how important the team is to a prolific rider’s palmarès.
A ‘classic’ Classic from the start
It was the sort of weather that would leave riders looking like they’d gone twelve rounds in the boxing ring, or without sleep for several nights in a row, their eyes puffy and bruised after 260 kilometres in the lashing rain. It was that old chestnut: ‘proper Classics weather’.
With that came multiple hard crashes, including for Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers), second-place finisher at last week’s Milan-San Remo, and the neutral service car was well attended by some of the unluckier riders on the road.
The race left Ypres at around 11am and as is nearly always the case, the breakaway was hotly contested as the race headed towards the iconic ‘ploegstraat’ sectors. As a sign of the changing times, 2017 Gent-Wevelgem winner Greg van Avermaet (AG2R-Citroën) was one of those to make it into the 14-man move, along with Mike Teunissen (Intermarché-Wanty-Circus), Jelle Wallays (Cofidis), Guillaume van Keirsbulck (Bingoal WB) and reigning U23 world champion Yevgeniy Fedorov (Astana Qazaqstan).
The Kemmelberg: a launchpad to victory
There was the typical wearing down process that comes with all races of this kind, but the break’s day was finally over and done a few kilometres from the penultimate ascent of the Kemmelberg, and Anthony Turgis (TotalEnergies) was quick to take his chance to force renewed impetus, but no one went with him.
But then it was the turn of Jumbo-Visma, and you could almost feel the orchestra take up arms as Van Aert and Laporte made their definitive, destructive move on the Belvedere cobbles, a teammate just behind to hold up their rivals. Caleb Ewan (Lotto Dstny) had positioned himself admirably near the front, but he was not the man to tag Van Aert’s acceleration.
That Turgis was drifting back between the Jumbo-Visma pair and the ailing peloton on the climb did not help the efforts of Ben Turner (Ineos Grenadiers) and Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo), who led the chase behind.
And they were off. Van Aert did all the driving at first with Laporte secured to his tow-ball, stretching the gap from around 15 seconds where it hovered for a tantalising few minutes before bouncing out towards the terminal margin of over two minutes.
“There were still 50km to go when we attacked,” Laporte explained after the finish. “We made a lot of efforts together. We did everything to go to the finish together. It was hard for me to follow Wout. It was just incredible to be with him and I’m so proud to do so much of it with him.”
Together through thick and thin
Last year’s edition was, though maybe not fresh in the mind, hard to forget for many reasons. There was of course the wonderful story of Biniam Girmay’s huge victory, but just behind the Eritrean in the four-up sprint was Laporte who was very disappointed to see that golden opportunity scuppered.
That was in the relatively early days of his Jumbo-Visma tenure, two days after arriving arm in arm with Van Aert at the E3 Saxo Classic after a very similar two-up attack, and just a few weeks after taking his first victory for his new team at Paris-Nice alongside Roglič and, again, Van Aert.
If there was an award for most successful signing, Laporte would be top of the one-man shortlist. He’s been an incredibly reliable teammate throughout his 15 months with the Dutch outfit and has been instrumental in some of Jumbo-Visma’s biggest victories in that time.
It would be easy to look at his own results on paper, or flick through some of the finish line photos and think ‘Oh, he was gifted the win’, and though that might be true on occasion, no one could say he didn’t earn his success. And to silence any question of just deserts, who can forget that fantastic win on stage 19 of the 2022 Tour de France.
Laporte showed a moment of weakness, or rather ever-so slightly lesser strength, on the final ascent of the Kemmelberg (Ossuaire side), but Van Aert took a breath at the top and waited for his teammate for the last 30km to the finish.
By the end, where they sat up to enjoy the moment, their winning margin was over two minutes.
“We just rode full on until the last 8-10km, maybe,” Van Aert said. “Then we were quite sure we had the victory. I won on Friday, and my eyes are on the races that are coming. Christophe also had a difficult start to the season with a sickness, and he’s such a team player that it was an easy decision.”
The Frenchman said after the finish that they didn’t talk about it until the end, but it’s hard to believe that a conversation hadn’t happened already, even if it was just in the team car: “How about we give Christophe the victoire aujourd’hui, and then he’s motivated to go all in for Wout at Flanders and Roubaix, oui? Oui.”
“We decided we’d take it to the finish,” Laporte said after the race, a dry jacket onboard as he began to shiver. “Wout asked me if I wanted to win. It’s incredible. It’s a pleasure. This has happened only once before in my career. I want to thank Wout for everything.
“I’ve never won a Classic before, and now I’m so proud. I think of my family and my little boy – it has taken so much sacrifice to get to this point.”
There was a lot of chatter between them in the last few kilometres, plenty of broad smiles and affectionate pats too, and few were surprised to see the pair sit up in the finishing straight, enjoying their moment together.
Just one cautionary tap of the brakes from Van Aert after their joint celebration and Laporte glided across the line, arms spread wide.
Jumbo-Visma’s strength in depth
Laporte and Van Aert weren’t the first Jumbo-Visma riders to put their noses in the wind, and they wouldn’t be the last either. Nathan van Hooydonck had been carefully marking moves earlier on, and indeed finding himself in a group with Laporte as the peloton split with about 80km to go.
But more importantly was after their teammates’ successful attack on the Kemmelberg when Van Hooydonck and young sprinter Olav Kooij made it into the chase and carefully kept eyes on the strong group.
Kooij, who showed his Classics pedigree at Wednesday’s Bruges-De Panne in very similar conditions, was second wheel on the group’s last time up the Kemmelberg – ready to put the brakes on and/or follow moves that might go over the top.
Then as the gap continued to stretch and the group hit the fast open roads, the climbs and technical sections all done, Kooij embedded himself in the pack as Van Hooydonck took over marking duties near the front.
As the finale beckoned and the group resigned itself to racing for the podium, the Jumbo-Visma pair seemed as motivated as everyone else to get their man on the third step, which would make it a historic team 1-2-3.
That didn’t happen in the end – a delighted Sep Vanmarcke won the sprint from a late four-man attack to take third – but Van Hooydonck proved yet again that he’s a pillar of the Classics squad, and Kooij continued to shine as part of a team that has now won four Belgian Classics with four different riders.
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