De Ronde van Vlaanderen is perhaps more than any other Monument a race that is connected to its location via the heart of the people. While of course the inhabitants of every iconic race step out onto their doorsteps with pride, there’s just something about Flanders – the history, the cobbles, the iconography – that inextricably binds race with place.
This fact, combined with the fact that it’s a Monument that blends the best of the rest, including the unforgiving cobbles, the punchy, race-defining climbs and the sheer eye-watering distance, not to mention the unpredictable Belgian spring weather, and you have a recipe for the most memorable racing of the cycling calendar year in, year out. And for potential brutality, arguably only surpassed by Paris-Roubaix for pure suffering.
2023 not only proved the race’s reputation for being tough and relentless, it pushed beyond the limit, and delivered a gripping day of viewing, and a horrific day in the saddle for many of the peloton.
In cold, windy conditions, 175 riders crossed the start line in Brugge, taking its turn to start the race once again for the first time since the move to Antwerp in 2017. At 273.4km the race set out its stall as a brutal edition with the longest distance since 1998, when Johan Museeuw was declared winner after 277km, and the riders seemed instinctively to lean into the distance by spending over 100km establishing the day’s breakaway, in a tale that is in itself constitutes a full race’s worth of retelling. Plenty of teams were interested, including repeated attempts from Movistar, Trek-Segafredo and Bahrain-Victorious amongst others to wrest themselves free of the bunch, but when crosswinds caused a major split it derailed the effort when the news reached the leading group that Mathieu van der Poel and his Alpecin teammates, along with a contingent of others riders, had been caught on wrong side of the split. It stymied the pursuit of establishing a breakaway as teams considered instead the business of dropping race favourites for the greater good, and there was indecision in the split group too as they tried to establish who should do the work, with BORA, Alpecin and Israel all involved.
(Just as the peloton reformed there was a crash moving through a town, with casualties including Marco Haller from BORA and Dmitri Peyskens from Bingoal, Tim Naberman from Team DSM joining Valentin Madouas from Groupama-FDJ in losing the war of attrition with the Ronde, the first DNFs of the day with over 200km still to ride. They would be far from the last).
207km to go, and the race began again. And almost immediately, another group was dropped, this time containing Tadej Pogačar, Tiesj Benoot and Matej Mohorič amongst others, and once again, the pressure at the front of the race became more about distancing race favourites than getting into a break – would there be one? Would the selection be made, before a breakaway had even had their nose in the wind? Meanwhile, as many crashes happened off camera as on it, Pedersen and Mohorič among the riders who had hit the ground at some point, the truth of their race already involving unseen trauma beyond the regular stress of racing, evidenced by the state of their equipment, apparel, and skin.
As the race dipped under 200km to go, Movistar’s Johan Jacobs nursed a slender few seconds’ gap as the rest of the bunch hesitated and procrastinated and generally stilled hostilities after 74km of utter pandemonium but there was still the matter of figuring out a break before they could rest, feed, and remove their extra layers. It took another 30km in which Astana Qazaqstan’s Yevgeniy Federov laboured alone for a period (and Taco van der Hoorn was the next of Intermarche’s riders to come down and have his day prematurely ended).
With 100km of racing down, a small but determined group almost snapped the elastic, and with persistence, they finally did. Jonas Rutsch and Tim Merlier made the jump 6km later and joined them with 163km to go. It was almost calm (apart from Tosh van der Sande crashing along with a couple of Bingoal riders) while back in the peloton, the harried bunch slowed right down, fuelling, waving at the cameras, undressing and generally having a well-earned rest almost at walking pace, allowing a gap of around four and a half minutes to open out
Once things had ‘settled’ you’d have expected a lulling in hostilities until the major cobbled climbs offered the chance for those serious about their chances of winning to ramp up the pressure. Yet it was that building of pressure towards the first passage of the Oude Kwaremont which led to the already infamous off-road manoeuvre of Filip Maciejek, which caused a huge pile-up in his wake, taking out many riders, and slowing down many more. Just moments later, the broadcast switched to the breakaway as they crested the Oude Kwaremont for the first time and the triumphal roar of the crowd reminded everyone why they were here. It was a poignant juxtaposition.
The biggest occasions lead to the greatest pressure, and in a sport as dangerous as cycling, this often yields devastating consequences – memories of last year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the most recent Monument marred by a major crash, drew uneasy comparisons.
Minutes later, the peloton arrived and with Ineos and Team DSM at the front of the race and the road narrowing, you could almost feel the exhaustion from 140km of racing taking its toll as the bunch traversed the wet cobbles, and so it was again when the riders entered the Kortekeer, until the realisation that the slow speed was in fact a tactic to slow the bunch in the worst possible place to be slowed. Having done the damage, Team DSM catapulted themselves away from the bunch, an odd strategy given how long was left to race, and arguably a dangerous one as riders were forced to unclip and some even fell. And, ultimately, all for nought, with the peloton still too tightly packed to be affected by attacks, though the peloton did split, with Van der Poel once again positioned on the wrong side of the gap.
(Meanwhile more crashes: Thomas Bonnet of TotalEnergies, Neilson Powless, a rider from Bahrain-Victorious, Davide Ballerini, Magnus Sheffield, Tiesj Benoot, Dries van Gestel. Van der Poel is forced to unclip and slow down, again).
The Business End
110km to go and a group broke free of the bunch – the first real attack of the day – and it included Tadej Pogačar with a ninja-like move that wasn’t initially picked up by the leaders of the pack – with the presence of the Slovenian so early in the race the move could only be a dress rehearsal, and it was reeled back in ahead of the Molenberg, one of the key pinch points of the race where positioning is everything. It was time: Kasper Asgreen and Matteo Trentin led the charge and they were joined by a select group of riders who would form a genuine challenge – from here they’ll be known as Group 1, even though they didn’t close down the early break for another 23kms. With Matteo Jorgenson and Benoît Cosnefroy riding on a few minutes later, the group’s composition swelled and it was not a group to be sniffed at. It also contained satellite riders from Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates, meaning Alpecin-Deceuninck were yet again on the backfoot after a long and difficult day of trying to keep VDP in touch with the race.
The watching public held their breath, as Group 1, now 19-strong having gathered up the breakaway, amassed over two minutes lead over the remaining peloton, with 70-odd kilometres remaining. Then three.
(Nine riders came down in a high-speed collision in which Intermarché-Circus-Wanty came off worst, with Aimé de Gendt and Biniam Girmay taken out and Matej Mohorič along with them. The list of DNFs grew).
It was always going to happen: brutality was done to the hopes of every other rider in the race with 56km to go, as UAE positioned Pogačar beautifully going into the Oude Kwaremont and he took matters into his own hands as he hit the cobbles, with Van Aert ploughing up the climb some distance back and MVDP, predictably, following his wheel.
The race was in pieces: two Ineos riders including Tom Pidcock and Nils Politt joined Laporte, Van Aert and Van der Poel in pursuit of both Pogačar and Group 1. The outcome hung in the balance – there was doubt, still, over whether or not the boy wonder could do this. Were we kidding ourselves? Probably. But it was a beautiful thing, with several key climbs still ahead, not to know, with the quality of the chasing group having earned the right not to be written off. But the Paterburg drove wedges between the riders of Group 1, offering an indication of who might go the distance, and who might drop back.
50km to go. Pogačar talks into his radio, riding smoothly in pursuit of group one, as Laporte sets off in pursuit of him, quickly bridging across. Pogačar perhaps knows by now, that it will be useful to have help, if he is to do battle with the collective strength of Group 1. Though this group has wasted down to 12 now, with the gap dipping under 1.30.
With 44km to go, the so-called ‘big three’ were finally together once again, and they shared the workload as they set about closing down the break – a joint effort that would ultimately favour the freshest rider. The Taaienberg saw Van der Poel suffer a mechanical and have to fight back on, yet again.
Up the road, the potentially doomed Group 1 had no choice – someone had to speculate, and it was Trek-Segafredo hard man Mads Pedersen who kicked on in search of victory, as Pogačar closed in from behind. Pedersen – agitator, animator, and ebullient with 30km to go, willing to risk it all on a solo punt. It was a wise move, with the determined chasers slicing chunks off the gap.
On the Kruisberg Van der Poel finally did for his rival Wout van Aert, who was cooked, dropped, and was now the sole member of ‘group 4’ until he caught up with Nathan van Hooydonck with 21km to go, just as Van der Poel and Pogačar bridged to the remains of ‘Group 1.’ Now it was time for Trentin to fulfil his potential, giving his leader a few kilometres of rest leading into the Oude Kwaremont, where the final gambit in the playbook was executed, to devastating effect.
Van der Poel dispatched, Pogačar demolished what remained of Mads Pedersen’s lead, and with just the Paterberg remaining, the Slovenian tore ahead in an effort to ensure it would be entirely academic by the time he hit that final stretch of hallowed cobbles. He maintained a solid 15 second gap over MVDP with Pedersen nursing a small gap over the rest, Powless using the slopes of the Paterberg to edge his nose into fourth spot, ahead of Van Aert who was now labouring alongside the valiant remains of ‘Group 1.’
12km worth of time trial effort remained, and it was never, ever going to be a problem for the irrepressible Tadej Pogačar. He saw it through, opening out his gap even further for a while, crossing the line to win his third Monument (fourth altogether) at just the second time of asking. A performance that defies words: a demolition, a statement of supremacy, a show of pure class.
From 175 starters, to 96 finishers. Battered, broken bodies told the story of the 79 who didn’t finish – and some who did. A normal rate of attrition perhaps, for such a challenging one-day race, with teammates pulling out having done their jobs for the day – but many withdrawals as a result of the numerous crashes.
The anatomy of the race is one of a collarbone broken in four places (Tim Wellens), a radial fracture to the left arm (Ben Turner), concussion (Biniam Girmay), a fractured elbow (Aimé de Gendt), trauma of the wrist (Thomas Bonnet), and many more wounds, contusions and bruises. This doesn’t cover the personal frustrations and disappointments, bruised egos, shattered dreams and broken hearts that will be nursed silently, losses rued by all but one.
Mathieu van der Poel rode to an impressive second place. His performance may be overlooked in the wake of Pogačar’s brilliance, yet he was caught on the wrong side of splits twice, his team burned through, not present in the lead group at any point, suffering a brief mechanical on the Taaienberg, forced to work back on again and again, and still just a few seconds in arrears, proof if it were needed that the Dutchman is in the form of his life. Yet it still wasn’t quite enough.
Wout van Aert suffered at the hands of Pogačar perhaps more than most. Despite winning Milan-Sanremo, Flanders is understandably one of the two Monuments he desperately wants on his palmares, but with his knee bloodied in the crash and his climbing legs deserting him, he was forced to look almost ordinary as his long-term rival and the boy wonder rode clear and away. With the Belgian media being the Belgian media, the haters and the cynics, ‘gift-gate’ and the incredible weight of expectation, Van Aert’s continued frustration at the hands of his ‘home’ monument was tough to witness, yet he remained pragmatic afterwards, and as is characteristic of the man, will likely recover for Paris-Roubaix next weekend with the emotional resilience that has seen him bounce back from countless setbacks throughout his career.
Finally, to the group who got away, who made us believe for several glorious moments that an upset to the status quo was possible: I salute you. I salute your resilience, your belief, your absolute commitment to a cause which as a collective you may or may not have accepted was doomed, as you built a lead and then saw it eroded by a rider that there is no answer to. Without riders like you, the performance from Pogačar would still be beautiful, impressive, and defining, but it would lack context, and the brief, beautiful portion of time when we dared to believe that one of those upsets could be on the cards. Every single one of you a diamond. The two Americans defying expectation by being there, everywhere – Neilson Powless ad Matteo Jorgenson. The stalwart Swiss who really is always there at the sharp end of races but often without the sting in the tail to finish it, Stefan Küng (and an honourable mention for his comrade in arms Valentin Madouas, who retired early with stomach problems but who we all strongly suspect would have been there alongside Küng). The plucky young Brit Fred Wright who bloody loves Flanders, making good on the promise of 2022 by being up there again when it mattered. Kasper Asgreen, who set the whole thing in motion in the first place, and gave Soudal-QuickStep hope, for a little while. Mads Pedersen, who was the one to make a speculative move near the finish, rewarded with a well-deserved podium for his efforts. And the ones who fell away in the later stages – Jhonatan Narvaez, trying to retrieve something from the day for a besieged Ineos, Florian Vermeesch, capable of riding cobbles with the best of them despite his relative youth, Benoît Cosnefroy, who couldn’t hang on to the front group but who spent a healthy portion of time riding with the so-called ‘big three’ and playing the fourth wheel role admirably. And a word for the helpers, Matteo Trentin, there when Pogačar needed him, riding strongly. Nathan van Hooydonck, satellite for Van Aert and dependable as ever when he was required.
And to the unseen riders rolling in minutes after the victory was sealed, like Alexander Kristoff, finishing in 18thposition despite crashing at 60km/h, getting back on his bike to come in within the top 20 riders. What can you do other than stand up and applaud the resilience, the determination, the sheer strength of will that compels these athletes to keep getting back up and pushing on.
It’s time to address the elephant in the room: on a day when a group of extremely strong riders had, at one stage, three minutes on him, is there any hope left for riders who aren’t Tadej Pogačar, when he is in the race? How can we reconcile our hopes and dreams for these riders – personal favourites, nice guys, workhorses – with the reality that they are fighting for second place at best?
Perhaps the starkest illustration of the sheer brutality of 2023’s edition of De Ronde is the fact that in the past ten years, the largest gap between the winning rider and the rider finishing in 20th place was 2.34 – with last year’s gap the shortest in a decade at 1.07. Yesterday, there was 6.09 between Pogačar and 20th position. As the Slovenian continues in his ascendancy, such statistics will likely become commonplace, yet in proving himself utterly dominant, there is no denying his incredible feats across racing constitute history in the making – and in theatres such as the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterburg, he is writing his name, improbably, alongside such specialists of the classics as Museeuw and Boonen, yet he’s cut from a different cloth. The embodiment of the brutality and beauty that is the Tour of Flanders.
As for the rest? They rolled in, in varying states of disrepair, with their tales from the battle. Injuries were tended to, positions compared, the dirt and debris cleaned away from faces, bodies and bikes later as we took stock and applauded the collective for an ensemble performance that deserved a standing ovation, and duly received one from the streets of Flanders themselves. From bit parts to supporting cast, they were all a part of the glorious whole – but was it – can it ever be – enough? For them, with their immense personal sacrifices to reach this level, tantalisingly close, a hair’s breadth from glory, yet in real terms, a mile away. For their supporters, stinging from the could-have-been and the almost-was and the ‘really, who were we kidding?’
But the smiles told as much of a story as the defeated expressions – Neilson Powless, fifth in his first appearance at the race, playing a significant role despite two crashes, talking about how he never imagined himself riding at the front of the Tour of Flanders, how it gave him chills. And Fred Wright, who summed up the mood in the entire room (read: the cycling world) when he simply said: ‘I love this race, man. It’s fucking brilliant.’ Will their time ever come, with the relentless, unforgiving prowess of Tadej Pogačar still perhaps a year or three from his prime? It’s impossible to say, but like us, they will keep coming back to try their luck, and writing themselves into the history of the race, etched indelibly into the memory of those who witnessed them giving their all, regardless of their eventual position. It's trite to say they are 'all winners' - that's not how sport works. But when you cast your eye down a top 10, a top 20, and smile at the names listed on it, and remember the efforts each and every one of them went to, on a day like this... It's hard not to.