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Our sport has changed in recent months, and specifically since the end of the first lockdown, a little over a year ago. The speed, tactics and spectacle are incredible. I’m in awe of the way the races are being run, and I can follow them on television in a way I never could when I was a pro. I’ve been trying to read the strategies in the races, and the French team at the Worlds blew me away. Les Bleus may not have the strongest team, but their state of mind and willingness to animate the race played a key role. And they had Alaphilippe. I don’t know Julian personally or well, but I have respect for what he and the others are bringing to the sport. Cycling has changed, for the better in this case.
However, the leaders at the top teams benefit from their teams’ power. A guy like Alaphilippe, who rides for one of the biggest teams, knows how to peak for his goals. And he can avoid competition for weeks without his team suffering because the
DQS collective strength is incredible. What a luxury. The way he handled the run-up to the Worlds is a masterpiece.
Perhaps what made the difference between him and Van Aert at the Worlds was his choice not to go to the Olympics in Tokyo. Van Aert is an impressive jack of all trades, and tries to win every race he takes part in. Alaphilippe knows how to target his goals better. He trains instead of racing, and uses some races as training. He can play his team’s game and then ease off after making the necessary efforts to hone his condition. You can’t do that if you need results every time you pin on a race number.
This year was also the first time I’ve watched ParisRoubaix from kilometre zero, and with passion.
What I wrote about the Worlds isn’t to say that Van Aert and Van der Poel are wrong to race full gas every time, because it’s in their DNA. They’ve been doing this since they were kids, and they know their aims and limits. I wouldn’t presume to advise them, so it’s up to them to assess their seasons. But ParisRoubaix showed both riders’ physical, mental and strategic limits. Mental freshness counts for a lot and I imagine Van Aert lacked that after his Worlds disappointment the previous weekend.
But all this does underline the continuing strength in depth of the big teams and how it weighs on the sport. I see a global ‘big five’ - Jumbo, DQS, UAE, Ineos and Alpecin and the gap widening between them and the rest. Differences in budgets between teams have always existed, especially between WorldTeams and ProTeams, but now the biggest races look like an unequal fight of the haves and have-nots.