Analysis: Lidl-Trek are the best team in the Classics right now

Mathieu van der Poel was impressed with Mads Pedersen's men at E3, and taken apart by them at Gent-Wevelgem

Clock00:33, Monday 25th March 2024
Lidl-Trek forcing the issue at E3

© Getty Images

Lidl-Trek forcing the issue at E3

Mathieu van der Poel scripted his own downfall at Gent-Wevelgem. After his extraordinary solo victory at the E3 Saxo Classic on Friday, the world champion was asked if anyone had impressed him. “Trek,” he snapped back instantly. “They showed that when you take the whole team and go to the front, you can really make a difference.”

On Sunday, Lidl-Trek, to give them their full name, gladly obliged, and were richly rewarded. The man who had been widely described as unbeatable on Sunday morning had been made to sit down in the sprint with Mads Pedersen, made to look human again.

Pedersen took responsibility and ensured a long-range sprint from a higher speed than Van der Poel would have liked, showing the better staying power and celebrating wildly in Wevelgem. However, the foundations for this victory were laid hours earlier, and by multiple men.

Lidl-Trek came through the echelons of De Moeren unscathed, and when Van der Poel opened the race on the first ascent of the Kemmelberg, they circled him like sharks, putting three riders in the group of seven that formed.

The masterstroke was sending Jonathan Milan on the attack. Van der Poel perhaps didn’t have to react quite as strongly as he did, especially with a Milan-San Remo winning teammate in Jasper Philipsen behind, but Milan was like carrot dangling in front of him, and he couldn’t resist. Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven were obviously sitting in, and Laurence Pithie (Groupama-FDJ) confessed to skipping turns too, leaving Van der Poel to take charge in driving the group along. This was where the wearing-down process began.

As soon as Milan was caught, with 63km to go, Pedersen immediately attacked, forcing Van der Poel to accelerate once more. They were properly poking the bear.

It’s worth nothing that by this point, the situation could and should have been even more commanding for Lidl-Trek. Van der Poel had reacted violently on the gravel plugstreets, launching an attack that caused Pithie to go “the deepest I’ve ever gone”, and Stuyven was on board until a cruel puncture sent him back to the peloton.

As it was, they didn’t need the Belgian. On the second ascent of the Kemmelberg, Pedersen already looked like the strongest rider, and he dictated the pace on the third and final ascent, too. All that was left was to encourage Van der Poel in committing – in which he again proved himself to be surprisingly generous – and then the small matter of beating him in the sprint.

“Mathieu, he’s one of the biggest stars in cycling and, without any criticism of my own team, no one of us is on that level, so if we have to beat him, or Wout [van Aert], or [Tadej] Pogačar, we have to be with numbers and we have to put pressure on them,” Pedersen said in his winner’s press conference.

“Today we saw a way of doing that. It’s really nice to be that many guys and put pressure on him and his team that early in the race.”

Cohesion and identity

Compared to the glory of Gent-Wevelgem, Lidl-Trek’s efforts at E3 went a little under the radar, but there, too, they were the strongest collective, as noted by Van der Poel. They were present en masse after the Taaienberg and, even if the race did become very one-sided, they still ended up with Stuyven as the runner-up and three more riders in the top 11.

It continued an encouraging trend this season. Stuyven was top 10 in both Opening Weekend races and helped set up a sprint for Pedersen at San Remo, although the Dane could only mange fourth there. Toms Skujins has added himself into the leadership equation with a breakout display at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a stunning second place at Strade Bianche, and a top 10 at E3. Meanwhile, Alex Kirsch has made a step up and Jonathan Milan proved himself a very useful foil on Sunday.

What has shone through, though, in the past two races is the cohesion, the sense of a group of riders who understand each other and are working in harmony. Part of that also comes from having collective bravery to make things happen, even as the underdogs.

Since Fabian Cancellara left after the Spring of 2016, the US-registered team have been hit and miss in the Classics. They’re had some big wins and some utterly anonymous days, but there’s a proper sense of identity forming this spring.

“We have to do it as a team, and not as individuals. We’re looking into more like team performance than each rider himself,” said Pedersen, who highlighted the importance of new title sponsor Lidl.

“It changed to more pressure, big ambitions, new signings. They are not just putting money in to have us sit in the peloton doing nothing, but with the expectations, the support follows. I think it’s paying off and I think that’s what we’re seeing in this first part of the season.”

Can they do it again?

The big question now is what this means for the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, and whether they can do it again.

The first thing to say is that Van der Poel has been shown to be beatable. The world champion spoke of the rainbow jersey on his back, and honouring it by not racing defensively or conservatively. Wout van Aert, likewise, has never been shy or sly. But pride can come before a fall, and the playing field can be levelled by engineering situations in which these riders burn matches unnecessarily.

In a away, Lidl-Trek are the new Visma-Lease a Bike. The Dutch team were omnipotent at the Opening Weekend but illness and injuries have ravaged the squad, with Christophe Laporte, the team's top-tier Plan B, looking like his Flanders will be ruined. Tiesj Benoot is banged up, Jan Tratnik crashed heavily out of a race he was only a last-minute stand-in for on Sunday, not to mention Van Aert himself complaining of pain after his crash at E3.

When it came to using numbers inventively, and using them against Van der Poel that was widely considered to be Visma’s patch, but Lidl-Trek have taken it over the past two races.

It’s not going to work every time, and Flanders is a very different test to Gent-Wevelgem, but there’s no reason why it can’t again on Sunday. They need to be bold, but belief and confidence will not be in short supply in the Lidl-Trek camp.

“On Friday the story was that there were only two candidates for the Ronde and Roubaix,” said Alpecin-Deceuninck director Philip Roodhooft. “Now it is clear that another team will have to take responsibility. ”

You sense that they’ll be glad to do so.

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