Just over a week away from the “Ronde”, the Groupama-FDJ team is definitely ready. In the E3 Saxo Classic, a proper rehearsal for the second Monument of the season, Stefan Küng and Valentin Madouas rode through the main Flanders “bergs” up front. Fighting for the top-10 behind an untouchable trio, the Swiss and the French riders came away with sixth and eighth places respectively in the WorldTour race, won by Wout van Aert. A good way to launch the “holy week”, while the second round is planned on Sunday with Ghent-Wevelgem.

Some sixty kilometres were certainly missing from the route, but the hills, the crowd, the atmosphere and the starting list had everything to remind us of the Tour of Flanders this Friday. That is not a coincidence as the E3 Saxo Classic has long been considered THE real test before the Flemish Monument. With Stefan Küng and Valentin Madouas, third and seventh in 2022, the Groupama-FDJ team therefore wanted to show ambitions at the start from Harelbeke, despite difficult weather including rain and wind. “We were quite optimistic and confident”, assured Frédéric Guesdon. “We got a podium last year and we have a group built for these races, so everyone was motivated and in good shape. We were there to win.” Yet, a small mishap kind of disrupted the dynamic after about sixty kilometres. Mathias Norsgaard (Movistar), Mathis Le Berre (Arkéa-Samsic), Kelland O’Brien (Jayco-AlUla), Thomas Bonnet (TotalEnergies) and Martin Urianstad (Uno-X) were already in the lead within the breakaway when Stefan Küng hit the ground in the peloton. “It’s never good to crash, even if it didn’t seem too serious,” said Frédéric. Entering the last hundred kilometres, it also became way more nervous and the approach to the Kortekeer and the Taaienberg proved extremely contested.

“We get off on the right foot”, Stefan Küng

It was indeed in this iconic berg that everything started, with Mathieu van der Poel as the first attacker. “We knew the strategic places”, explained Frédéric. “We wanted to be placed as well as possible, but we didn’t really succeed. This is always the issue, because everyone wants to be in front, and there is no room for everyone. We always try, but sometimes it doesn’t work”. At the top of the Taaienberg, Stefan Küng and Kevin Geniets found themselves in a chasing group, which finally made contact with the leading men a few kilometres further on. A small bunch of around thirty men reformed, before Soren Kragh Andersen, Nathan Van Hooydonck and Matej Mohoric took a step ahead. In the back, Valentin Madouas took advantage of the Eikenberg to bridge across to his two teammates. However, he had barely returned when he saw Van der Poel, Wout van Aert and Tadej Pogacar fly away in the Stationberg, nearly sixty kilometres from the line. “We were a bit far when they went, but I don’t think there was much to do,” said Stefan. “We then tried to do the best possible race in the back, but we were racing for fourth place”. “The guys corrected the situation well and we got back in the mix”, added Frédéric. “We just came across three riders who were above the rest. We should have tried to get a step ahead, as others did”.

The strong trio quickly caught the three leading men, and then broke away on the Oude Kwaremont just over 35 kilometres from the finish. In the back, Valentin Madouas and Stefan Küng perfectly took advantage of the Paterberg-Vieux Quaremont sequence to make a difference. After those two hills, there were only four riders left with them. Thanks to a good collaboration in the group, the Groupama-FDJ men were able to join the three former leaders thirty kilometres from the line, and therefore go for a top-5. In the Tiegemberg, the last climb of the day with twenty kilometres to go, Valentin Madouas again tried to make the difference, but the latter was made on the downhill. Stefan Küng counterattacked and went away with Ivan Garcia Cortina, Matteo Jorgenson and Matej Mohoric. The four men worked well together, without being able to get significantly closer to the three leading men. Fighting for the remaining places, Stefan Küng couldn’t match the Movistar’s duo, but still put on a great fight to take a solid sixth place on the line, less than a minute behind the winner Wout van Aert. Valentin Madouas finished a few moments later, alone, in eighth position. “In the end, it was played a bit tactically”, explained Stefan. “It was also a very, very hard race and I was really empty at the finish. Overall, it’s a good first race on the Flemish Classics. It’s always a good thing to be in the mix and to start the campaign well. We get off on the right foot, we will continue like this, and it will pay off”.

“It was the race I needed”, Valentin Madouas

“For my first Classic, it was really a difficult and tiring day, but I felt pretty good personally,” said Valentin. “I was sick for almost ten days, it was my returning race, so it makes sense not to be 100%, but it will come. Today’s performance is a good sign, because I felt pretty good compared to the feelings of the last few days. I am really very satisfied. This is the race I needed to get back in the mix for the next goals which are also the most important”. “We are where we belong”, concluded Frédéric. “It’s a rather good start to our Classics. It could have been better because we always take the start to win, but it could also have been worse if Stefan would have hurt himself more in his crash. In the end, we placed two guys in the first 8, so it’s not bad”. The campaign will continue on Sunday between Ghent and Wevelgem.

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