Megan Guarnier claims first-ever women’s Strade Bianche title
Boels-Dolmans continue to stamp their collective authority on the spring season as Megan Guarnier scored the squad’s sixth win of the season at Strade Bianche. The American soloed to victory in Siena, more than a half-minute ahead of teammate Lizzie Armitstead. Italian Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle Honda) rounded out the podium.
“This is a really big win,” said Guarnier, who delivered her first big European result in Tuscany three years ago at the Giro della Toscana Femminile. “I’m still a little bit in disbelief. I remember sitting on the couch a year ago watching the men’s race. I said: ‘Wow. What an incredible race. I want to do that.’ And then when I found out we were going to race it, I thought about it and said: ‘I want to win that.’ It’s not every day that you say you want to win a race and then it happens.”
The strength of Boels-Dolmans continues to prove a tough nut to crack for the other women’s teams. Four riders have delivered six victories at three different races this season – Ladies Tour of Qatar, Le Samyn and now Strade Bianche. The only race at which the Dutch team missed out was Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and even there they put two riders on the two lessor spots of the podium.
“It’s exciting for us,” said Guarnier. “There’s pressure to keep it up, but there’s such a good feeling in the team. We have each other’s backs and no matter who is on the top of the podium, we’re happy. I think our results speak for themselves – four different riders on the podium already this year.”
While the race win belonged to Guarnier and her Boels-Dolmans team, it was inarguably a victory for women’s cycling as well. The first-time women’s event promised charm and challenge – and it delivered heartily on both counts.
“The prestige of having one of the most famous men’s race now have a women’s race is pretty phenomenal for our sport,” said Wiggle Honda general manager Rochelle Gilmore, a key player in the progression of women’s cycling. “It’s really reinforcing how quickly right now women’s cycling is taking steps forward. There’s one race after another that are adding a women’s race to an already existing men’s race.”
“I think race organisers are doing that because they see the demand from the general public,” Gilmore added. “Also, they see a benefit commercially. Our sport is really exciting. Today was really exciting. They’re not going to regret for a second that they put a women’s race on.”
The women’s peloton made the most of the opportunity to race over the infamous white roads that give Strade Bianche its name. The five sections of gravel included in the 103 km course proved as selective as anticipated. The first sector, coming at 33 km and measuring 2.2 km in length, softened the field. The second sector, the longest at 9.5 km, smashed the field to bits.
“This was our first time racing on the gravel,” noted Guarnier. “I loved it. You didn’t want to get in the soft stuff, and you had to look way ahead to make sure you got the right lines, but it was nice terrain.”
“We tried to be patient today,” Guarnier added. “We knew it was a really hard course, and it’s not a race we’ve done before, so it was all new. The idea was that we would just see what people were doing and be patient with ourselves – and then believe in ourselves for the finish.”
Guarnier and her teammates didn’t have to be patient for long. By the mid-point of the race, coming off the second section of gravel, only 14 riders remained in contention. Along with Guarnier, Armitstead and Longo Borghini, Anna Soloveny (Astana – Acca Due O), Annemiek van Vleuten (Bigla), Shelley Olds (Bigla), Ashleigh Moolman Paiso (Bigla), Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans), Christine Majerus (Boels-Dolmans), Olena Pavlukhina (BTC City Ljubljana), Lucinda Brand (Rabo Liv Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Rabo Liv), Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv), Alena Amialiusik (Velocio – SRAM) and Trixi Worrack (Velocio – SRAM) had made the cut. By the time the group had exited the second gravel section, they had nearly a minute advantage over the second group.
Boels-Dolmans, Bigla and Rabo Liv enjoyed a numerical advantage in the group of 14. Each of the three teams had three riders represented.
“The race was already done on the 9.5 kilometre gravel section,” said Longo Borghini. “We had the main selection there. Boels, Rabo and Bigla were controlling the race. They were playing with numbers. They were too many and really strong and really well-prepared.”
Notable absences from the front group included Tiffany Cromwell (Velocio-SRAM) and Emma Johansson (Orica-AIS). Cromwell had named the race as a target but fallen ill during the week, necessitating a change in plans for her team. Johansson suffered a flat tyre at the most inopportune moment, just before the race split on the gravel.
The selective nature of the course along with a series of attacks by Moolman further reduced the size of the front group. As they excited the third section of gravel only ten riders remained in front. By the start of the fourth section of dirt roads, the steep climbs, winding descents and blustery winds had taken their toll. Only five riders remained in contention – Moolman, Armitstead, Guarnier, van der Breggen and Longo Borghini.
“We had to be a little conservative,” explained Guarnier. “Initially other teams had numbers, but as the race went on, the course selected some of the riders out. That’s when we could use our numbers to our advantage.”
Armitstead made her move on the steepest section of the penultimate sector of gravel. When she was caught, Guarnier accelerated away from the group. She immediately created a gap, quickly opening up a lead of 40 seconds. Despite lacking time gaps in the final 20 kilometres, the 29-year-old managed to maintain her advantage over the undulating run-in to Siena.
“Lizzie went on the attack,” said Guarnier. “I countered that, and then I stayed off the front. I knew Lizzie had her work cut out for her behind me, covering everything because she was alone.”
“I never had any time gap,” Guarnier added. “I don’t know if there’s any video footage, but you’ll think I have some sort of nervous twitch, looking behind me the whole time, but I never knew how far away they were. When I eventually saw the car behind me, that’s the only way I knew I had some kind of gap.”
“Even in the final, I wasn’t sure,” Guarnier added. “They can gain a minute on you in that final. You just have to keep going as hard as you can. Maybe with 50 metres, I started to think I had it. Before that, it was no guarantee, especially on the really steep stuff.”
Thirty seven seconds later, Armitstead bested Longo Borghi to the line for the second spot on the podium. The Wiggle Honda rider expressed satisfaction with the result.
“When Guarnier went, I couldn’t do anything,” said Longo Borghini. “I had to follow and save everything for the last kilometre. I think I raced quite smart. I’m third in the finish, and I’m happy to be third.”
“My goal was to enjoy the race and race as hard as I could without thinking about the result,” she added. “I think I can be satisfied. I have a good level.”
When we asked Longo Borghini if she did, in fact, enjoy the race, she smiled.
“Yes,” she said. “It was terribly wonderful.”
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