“I'm Canadian. I melt.” - Mike Woods Sunshine. Teamwork. New colors. The team is…
Travel with us to Belgium, Italy, France and the Netherlands for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Opening Weekend in early March to the final Classic of Spring, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, in April below.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
It was nervous. It was cold. It was Belgium. The Spring Classics season opened with the traditional back-to-back races of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
“Originally I got put on for KBK, and I was a little nervous,” said . “I’m not going to lie. I was having flashbacks to riding the Olympia’s Tour as an under 23 rider, which is in the Netherlands which is not too dissimilar to [OHN] racing. I crashed five times in the first four days, so yeah I was a little nervous. Then two days [before the race] they called me up and said ‘we’re going to have you double down and now you’re doing Omloop as well, so buckle up.’ and I did and I gave it my Boy Scout best.” Alex Howes
His Boy Scout best included flying the EF Education First Pro Cycling flag in the first early breakaway of the spring.
Those dusty white roads of Tuscany already hold a special place in the heart of the peloton. Riders hanging off the back, their day over still cling on so they can feel the grandeur of Sienna’s welcome into Piazza del Campo.
Simon Clarke was the team’s top finisher at Strade Bianche, snagging his first top ten in his home away from home race, after his co-leader Alberto Bettiol fell out of contention with cramping during the race’s longest gravel section.
Clarke says: “I hesitated when Fuglsang went and I should have tried to go, whether I could have got across or not I don’t know, but I felt good. I hesitated a bit and then did what I could. I’m happy to finish in the top ten. It’s my favorite race. We only race once a year on the dirt, and it always holds a special place. The team gave me a leadership role today and I really wanted to do a good job for them. Top 10 was my goal.”
Every year we ask the same question: will it come down to a sprint on the Via Roma or will an escape artist have his day? The longest day on the WorldTour calendar, at 291km, Milan-San Remo is a waiting game.
Before the race, sport director Charly Wegelius explained the team’s tactic: “We need to control things on the flat before we get through the Torquino and down the descent. Then we go into a separate phase of the race, and we need to try to get Simon Clarke and Alberto Bettiol over the Cipressa. After that, we have options depending on the size of the group. Either try to move on the Poggio or go with the sprint for the win.”
“It was my dream to attack on the Poggio,” Bettiol said.
Simon Clarke chased back to the front group on the descent off the Poggio, delivering an MSR personal best and the team’s top result: ninth place
E3 Binckbank Classic
E3 Binckbank Classic (formerly E3 Harelbeke) marks the start of Holy Week on the cobbles, serving as the final buildup to the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
This year E3 was a tale of two halves for the team. Classics captain Sep Vanmarcke catapulted into a ditch and abandoned the race with an injury that required a week of dedicated rehabilitation. Enter Alberto Bettiol, who rose to the opportunity on offer, delivering fourth place in an exciting finale that inspired confidence in him that he would carry into later races.
“If the team tells me I’m the captain, I go for the victory”
“I’ve raced the Classics for three or four years now,” said Bettiol. “They tell you that if you go well then you’re good on the cobbles, the climbs, the sprints. You’re good everywhere. My form is pretty good right now. I’m happy and for now it’s about being focused to help the team or if the team tells me I’m the captain, I go for the victory, so we will see. The biggest thing I have to improve on in Belgium is to stay more in the front. Every energy that you can save in the end, you can use for the sprint. This I have to improve.”
Gent-Wevelgem’s wicked crosswinds often play a decisive role in the mid-week Classic. Most years, much of the peloton don’t make it to the finish line. This edition was no different.
Sebastian Langeveld was among the riders that attempted a late race escape, hoping to disrupt the reduced bunch sprint finish. In the end, 30 riders contested the field sprint with Alexander Kristoff (UAE) proving victorious.
“I felt tired right from the start,” said Alberto Bettiol. “It was super, super fast. I had to stop in the feed zone and I looked at my Garmin and we had ridden 130km in two and a half hours, so 50kph average. That’s just so you understand how this group was going. I was just chasing and chasing.”
“It was hard day with a lot of crosswinds,” noted . “We had a really hard final from 50 kilometers. I managed to place a good attack with a couple other guys at five kilometers to go, but unfortunately we were caught in the last kilometer. That’s cycling.” Sebastian Langeveld
Tour of Flanders
“I must have told him in every possible language to push to the finish.”
Tour of Flanders delivered the plot twist of the spring. We weren’t among the pre-race favorites, but we raced as if we were — and what unfolded from there was an incredible display of teammate work that put EF Education First Pro Cycling on the top step of the podium.
Sep Vanmarcke, whose start was in question until 36 hours before race day, played the role of super domestique, jumping into a breakaway 60 kilometers from the finish and then dropping back to set a ferocious pace on the lower slopes of Oude Kwaremont. Alberto Bettiol launched a gusty attack near the top of Oude Kwaremont, quickly opening up a gap. Enter Sebastian Langeveld, who immediately blocked the chase. The result? A solo celebration for Bettiol across the Tour of Flanders finish line.
Back at the bus, following Bettiol’s big win, sport director Andreas Klier said: “I must have told him in every possible language to push to the finish. I wasn’t surprised that Alberto dropped them. That he held on? That was another story.”
“Today is my day, but I’m sure in the future many of my teammates will enjoy this same moment as me,” Bettiol said. “I think from now on you should be looking more at pink at the front.”
EF Education First Pro Cycling put two in the top ten at Paris-Roubaix on Sunday. Sep Vanmarcke bested Peter Sagan in a two-up sprint for fourth. Sebastian Langeveld nabbed tenth place from the first chase group.
Fourth and tenth. They’re nice results on paper — but when you have the legs and the head for the victory but you’re missing the luck, the results can feel rough.
“I’m very, very disappointed of course,” said Vanmarcke. “After all that happened the last weeks, I had to fight very hard to come back, even when I couldn’t train. Last week I did everything I could with a bad knee to still train and get the best level possible, and today I knew if I did everything perfect, I could still be close to victory.
“And today I did everything perfect. I didn’t make one mistake. But then on the Carrefour de l‘Arbre, my derailleur stopped working. I went into the 11 and I couldn’t do anything anymore. I had to wait for 10-kilometers for a new bike and it killed my legs. I had to let the victory go.”
Amstel Gold Race
Simon Clarke took a surprise second place at Amstel Gold Race, sprinting across the line just behind wunderkind Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon – Circus) in a thrilling finale to the first of the three Ardennes Classic races.
The result is a testament to the importance of embracing a “never give up” attitude — in cycling and in life.
Clarke entered the final 10 kilometers in a two-man chase group. Clarke and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) made up chase group four and had five riders ahead of them. The duo were battling for fifth place, hoping to bridge across to Max Schachmann (BORA – hansgrohe), who raced alone in fourth place.
Instead of catching Schachmann, Clarke and Mollema were caught by the group behind, and Clarke assumed his changes at a top ten finish were gone. Despite his initial dismay and disappointment, Clarke forged on.
And suddenly, inexplicably, the race came back together. In the final kilometer, Clarke found himself at the front of the race. He capitalized on the chaos of the regrouping, quickly finding van der Poel’s wheel and sprinted off it to take second.
Clarke says: “It’s my first podium in a Classic. It’s definitely up there with my career-best results.”
Flèche Wallonne is defined by one climb: the infamous Mur de Huy. The steepest finishing climb in cycling, the Mur de Huy, in the town of Huy, deep in southern Belgium’s Ardennes hills, measures only 1300 meters but what it lacks in length it more than makes up in steepness. No surprise given the climb’s name “the Mur” translates to “the Wall”. This wall has sections as steep as 26 percent and averages 10 percent gradient. Spectators who stand roadside get winded just walking up it.
Mike Woods was our man for the second Ardennes Classic, but a late race mechanical took the Canadian out of contention, leaving Simon Clarke to fly the EF Education First Pro Cycling flag in the finale. Although Clarke was still carrying fatigue from his effort at Amstel Gold, he had a crack up the Mur, climbing to the finish line 36-seconds behind repeat winner Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) to slot into 23rd place.
“Mike had a mechanical at the worst moment of the race and did a huge effort to rejoin the peloton,” said sport director Juanma Garate. “Afterwards, he was not in a good position when the bunch split due to speed and winds, and he didn’t make it back to stay with the strongest.”
“I’m not thrilled,” said Woods. “Flèche is becoming my white whale.”
A rain-soaked Liège-Bastogne-Liège delivered on the drama expected of the Spring Classics closer. EF Education First Pro Cycling delivered on the guts, heart and class that has characterized our spring campaign.
Sport director Tom Southam asked the team to stay hidden during the first half of the race in anticipation of the action that would begin on Haut Levee. The team complied. When the race came to life, EF Education First Pro Cycling had the numbers and the aggressors with Tanel Kangert attacking out of an elite selection that included four of his teammates.
Kangert’s move drew out what became a nine-man move that spent 35-kilometers at the front of the race, 50-kilometers for Kangert, who led solo from La Redoute until Roche-aux-Faucons.
Mike Woods went on the attack following Kangert’s catch. The third place finisher at the 2018 Liège-Bastogne-Liège could not slip away unnoticed. Woods’ move was marked by Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Davide Formolo (Bora-hansgrohe).
“I was excited, but I was also in the red,” said Woods. “I was trying to recover and prepare myself for the final kicker of the race. I knew I had to survive up that if I wanted to win, but I just wasn’t able to.”
Fuglasang shed Formolo and Woods up the final climb and hung on to take the win. Formolo held off the chasers to take third. Woods was swallowed up by an elite chase group before the finish line and sprinted in for fifth place.
“I was the third best climber today and I gave it my everything, said Woods. “Ultimately, I gave my best effort today and the guys rode great for me, so I really can’t be upset. I think the best part of this classics campaign has been that we are no longer pleased with a 5th place finish at a monument. This team now shows up to every race with the goal of winning, and I am most proud of that.”