The “Tour of Flanders’ rehearsal” gave very good signals to the Groupama-FDJ cycling team on Friday. In Harelbeke, Stefan Küng and Valentin Madouas proved to be among the strongest on the E3 Saxo Bank Classic. Although they could not prevent Wout Van Aert from taking the win, the two men finished in the first chasing group and the Swiss rider even managed to cross the line in third position, thus clinching his first podium in a Flemish Classic. Valentin Madouas completed the team’s great day with a seventh place on the line.
Seventeen bergs, five cobblestones’ sectors and two hundred and three kilometres. This was the menu in Flanders today in order to begin the “Belgian holy week”, with the E3 Saxo Bank Classic. Just nine days from the “Ronde”, the best specialists were therefore set to fight for a first time around Harelbeke. However, it all started with a fierce battle for the breakaway, which lasted for seventy kilometres before seven men were finally able to take the lead. It was not long, though, before the peloton started to increase its pace as the first bergs’ sequences approached, which therefore left no room for rest. Halfway through the race, the tension was already all over the place while the fugitives only had a two-minute lead. Then came the most anticipated Taaienberg, 80 kilometers from the finish. “It was the first really important point of the race”, said Frédéric Guesdon. “We knew that we absolutely had to be in front because it often opens up there”. “We were already in a good position before the Taaienberg, but I know from experience that you have to be in the top ten or even the top five at the bottom,” added Stefan Küng. “I told Kevin to push, and he did a great job bringing me back up. I tackled the Taaienberg in perfect position”. The former Swiss champion was thus at the forefront to see Wout Van Aert make the first big attack of the day, and he was able to follow it just as six other riders. No more. “We were seven up front, but there were three Jumbo-Visma, so there was not a good collaboration”, he said.
“It was all or nothing”, Stefan Küng
The morning breakaway was caught soon after, and despite a thirty-second gap was initially created, the peloton managed to organize itself in order to come back just behind the leading group at the bottom of the Eikenberg, sixty kilometres from the line. Valentin Madouas then took advantage of it to jump across, like a few others. A few kilometres further, after some other attacks, only sixteen men were still featuring in the front, including the two Groupama-FDJ’s riders. “Then, we had to follow the moves a bit without wasting all our energy,” explained Stefan. “We knew it was going to be played out on the Paterberg, and I was well positioned, in 5th-6th place. Unfortunately, when there is the gutter on the side, it is very difficult to overtake the guys on the cobbles. The two Jumbo-Visma’s guys went strong, and I didn’t even see them break away”. Following a powerful attack, Wout Van Aert only had Christophe Laporte in his wheel and the duo quickly gained a thirty-second lead. “I accelerated again in Oude Kwaremont, and I was the first from the chasing group at the top”, said Stefan. “I saw them ahead, but they were too strong. There was nothing to do to come back.” On the other hand, the Swiss man could still see his teammate Valentin Madouas alongside him, as the Frenchman also impressed in Oude Kwaremont. At this point, the chasing group was down to just eight men. “It’s also nice to see that the team is competitive and can have numbers in these races”, added Stefan. “It’s important because something can always happen: a puncture, a bad moment. When we’re many, there are more cards to play”.
On the other hand, the victory did not seem an option anymore with 25 kilometres remaining when the gap reached one minute. “When we realized that we couldn’t win anymore, I told the guys to try to keep the group going until the last three kilometres, and then attack one after the other, talk to each other and help each other”, said Frédéric Guesdon. The fight for the podium finally got underway with a first attack from Stefan Küng. “It was good to have several cards, especially in the final”, he told. “I made the first attack, and having a teammate, I did not have to jump on every move. Val followed the attacks, and that’s also what allowed me to gamble. I wanted to be in the last position. I had to play a bit, and when we turned left towards the finish line, I thought it was a good time to go. I attacked from behind and put everything until the line”. More than a minute after Wout Van Aert, Stefan Küng eventually managed to get a step ahead of his competitors to take third place. “I’m very happy to get this podium, it’s the maximum I could do today,” he added. “Today, I think that having often raced these finals lately helped me. It brings more peace and serenity. I told myself that it was useless to finish seventh or eighth. It was all or nothing, and it also takes a bit of luck. It’s nice when it works out. In addition, I felt good in the hills, and I was there when it came to the legs. It gives me confidence for the upcoming races”.
“We knew we had a motivated group”, Frédéric Guesdon
Valentin Madouas also gained confidence on Friday as he eventually placed seventh following a good sprint among the chasers. “I think we had a very good race as a team”, said the man from Brest. “We showed great things together. For us, it is for sure a benchmark race in the Classics. I personally enjoy these races, and I have felt much better in the last three days. I will now try to recover well and keep energy for Wednesday (Dwars door Vlaanderen) and then to achieve the best possible performance on the Tour of Flanders. I think we can really have a good day there. Physically, we are in the mix, and I think we can even improve. We will try to turn this third place into a better result”. “Stefan managed to get on the podium, but it could also have been Valentin, who had very good legs”, concluded Frédéric. “We are very happy. This group was already performing in the Omloop and in Kuurne, even if the results did not show it. We knew we had a motivated group for these races. Today was the first of the four Flanders Classics. We came here in Belgium hoping to make at least one podium out of the four. We did it already on the first one, and it bodes well for the next ones”. To follow: Ghent-Wevelgem, on Sunday. “It’s a race that suits me well, especially when there’s a lot of wind,” concluded Stefan. “For now, the forecast looks quite calm. It’s good that Arnaud will be there, it will give us another card to play.”