Tactical Review: Australia pull off QuickStep-like Flandrian masterclass

It is not easy to write race reviews on U23 events due to the lack of TV coverage, but thanks to DirectVelo’s live ticker, I was able to follow enough of the race to not only find out who won, but piece together how Australia pulled off a tactical masterclass to win the race.

One week ago in Oudenaarde, Niki Terpstra soloed in to win De Ronde van Vlaanderen, with teammates Philippe Gilbert and Zdenek Stybar coming home in 3rd and 10th respectively, to round out a famous day for the Belgian squad run by wily old fox Patrick Lefevere. Despite not having any of the outright favourites, like Sagan, Van Avermaet, Benoot or Vanmarcke, the team utilised its strength and numbers beautifully to win.

Someone at Cycling Australia was clearly watching and paying attention, as just six days later, they employed the same tactic to perfection in the U23 race…

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Monk (centre) and Whelan (left) on this year’s Aussie U23 RR podium.

When writing our preview for the Ronde van Vlaanderen Beloften, we grouped Australia in with a clump of teams with a strong startlist but no obvious favourite. Some sites had on-fire Rob Stannard as a favourite, but we left him as a joker card, as he had never raced on cobbles. James Whelan had never raced in Europe but had been classy all season in one-day races. Cyrus Monk, Sam Jenner were experienced names but were not expected to be favourites, and Sebastian Berwick is a first year U23. The team didn’t even fill out their six rider allocation.

As any good QuickStep rider will probably tell you, numbers are key to winning Classics. Numbers and strength. When the break went with two riders in it, nobody panicked. Two more riders bridged. Still no one panicked. Then, a group of eight moved off in pursuit, featuring most of the big nations. Did Australia panic? Nope, they had Monk in the group.

Monk and his group worked well and despite never getting more than 90 seconds once they reached the four man group ahead, led over the Paterberg-Kwaremont combo with between 30-50 seconds. At this point, things go crazy and some new riders appeared in the ticker as part of the front group. No worries, Monk was still there.

Aussie boys pre Flanders (l-r) Whelan, Berwick, Jenner, Monk, Stannard. Credit: Cycling Australia

Even after losing Sam Jenner to a mechanical from the bunch and Berwick abandoned, Whelan and Stannard “chilled” in the bunch as best as possible. When Italian Filippo Rocchetti attacked the break, five riders made it back to him to form a leading sextet. Monk was, you guessed it, one of the leading six.

Now at some point, things go blank and the ticker went down over the Taienberg, but at some point, Monk’s group was finally caught. Out of the frenzy, 19km from home, emerged Whelan, leading solo by 30 seconds over a small group of no more than 30 riders. He and Monk had simply swapped duties: Whelan was now attacking and Monk protecting Stannard.

Whelan is an interesting story in his own right. Racing mostly in Australia (he has no Pro Cycling data pre-2017), second in the U23 National RR behind Monk earned him a spot on EF-Drapac, also home to Monk, and he then went on to score 2nd in the Oceania RR a few weeks ago, after taking 15th on GC in the Sun Tour. He clearly is a quality rider, even if he isn’t sure exactly what his speciality is as a rider. Still, being a jack of all trades and master of none can serve riders very well, see Michal Kwiatkowski for proof.

Thanks to his two teammates behind, Whelan was able to commit fully to his effort and go all out, and once he was over the climbs on the circuit, he had a seemingly unassailable lead of 34 seconds with 6km to go. However, after a long and savage race, he really began to tire and that chasing group got closer and closer with each passing kilometre.

Stannard at this point must have been licking his lips, knowing he had had the easiest possible ride on cobbles, and he was in red hot form, after taking 2nd in Trofeo Piva and winning last week’s Giro del Belvedere. With favourite Jasper Philipsen out of the race, Stannard was now one of the fastest riders in a rapidly tiring chase. If Whelanwas caught, he was a huge favourite to win…

Whelan was pedalling squares at this point. Could he hold off the chase? Yes. He did just hold them off by six whole seconds to finally get the one-day win he deserves this year, with Stannard proving he is in fact an all-conquering robot sent from the future to destroy everyone on two wheels by claiming third, edged out by German Max Kanter in a photofinish for second. What makes this 1-3 so special is that Whelan had never raced a single kilometre in a UCI race on European soil pre-Flanders, and Stannard had never raced a single kilometre in a cobbled UCI race pre-Flanders. Despite presumably being tired (who knows, he may be a robot too), Monk was able to get 10th. Terpstra, Gilbert Stybar. Whelan, Stannard, Monk. 1-3-10. Nobody usually does Classic racing better than QuickStep, very few do it equally as well. But on a sunny day in Flanders, a quintet of U23s from the other side of the world, didn’t just talk the talk, they walked the walk and were rewarded handsomely. Lefevere would be proud.

Image result for james whelan e-f drapac
Whelan. Credit: E-F Drapac
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