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The attractive thing about cycling is that races take place on public roads, so it’s the same stretches of pavement that cars and cyclists use every day. When the professional peloton visits your home country, it makes those familiar roads extra special. So I was quite looking forward to visiting Drenthe for the second round in this first UCI Women’s WorldTour.
While I was on the sidelines today, I do line up with quite a few of these women at the smaller national races, and I know what racing in the Netherlands is usually like: nervous. With the racing conditions, prestige of the events and the caliber of riders to compete against, even in the smaller races, racing in the Netherlands is always tough.
“It’s [stressful racing], because you need to stay concentrated the whole race,” said Luxembourg champion Christine Majerus prior to the race. “It’s turning a lot, the roads are narrow, after every corner there is the possibility of crosswinds.”
The Ronde van Drenthe had been a World Cup race for several years now, so there had always been a lot at stake. But with it being the second race of the inaugural Women’s WorldTour, the bar was raised even higher.
The WorldTour standings before Drenthe
Last week, Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans) took home the first ever Women’s WorldTour leader’s jersey by beating Kasia Niewiadoma (Rabo-Liv) in a sprint at the Piaza del Campo in Siena, Italy, earning the first 120 points in the WorldTour ranking. As an under 23-rider, Niewiadoma was awarded the blue jersey for best young rider and sits in 2nd in the overall WorldTour ranking with 100 points. Emma Johansson (Wiggle High5) sits in 3rd wih 85 points for that.
The second round of the Women’s WorldTour
The riders got lucky today: springlike weather arrived in the Netherlands last week, replacing wet and near-freezing temperatures with a sunny 10 degrees Celsius. Riders were all smiles when they lined up at the start in Hoogeveen, probably hiding some of their nervousness.
But even in the nicer weather conditions, the Ronde van Drenthe remained a typical Dutch race:
A short, steep climb
Although the Netherlands is generally pretty flat, we do have a number of what we call ‘hills’, but all others would call it no more than undulating roads, mostly in the province of Limburg. Drenthe has been very creative in finding some altitude meters though, having put asphalt right across a mountain waste: the VAM-berg. With an average incline of 17% and a maximum of 23%, it’s really steep, but with a length of 500 meters it’s also really short. The peloton would cross it three times today.
On the first climb of the day, after only twenty minutes into the race, the VAM-berg was used by the top favourites to test out their legs and those of their main competitors. Most teams have reconned the climb, but a number of unexperienced riders got dropped at this point, now that they had to do the climb in the nervousness and excitement of the race.
Majerus, nicely at the front, anticipating the difficult race that Drenthe can be, took the first Queen of the Mountains points at the top of the VAM-berg.
Many people think only Belgium has cobbles, but the Ronde van Drenthe certainly has a number of cobble sections, which aren’t much different from the classic ones that can be found in the Omloop het Nieuwsblad or Tour of Flanders. Cobble riding is a special skill, just like climbing and time trialling, and some riders are better at it than others. This showed at the first cobble section, where the bunch was split in three parts. Nothing definitive though and all riders came back together shortly thereafter.
An element which makes this race extra daunting is the risk of crosswinds. While the peloton did have a practice run at the Ladies Tour of Qatar, where some riders have painfully experienced what can happen if you miss out on the first (or second) echelon, the roads in Qatar are wide and clear. The narrow and turning roads of Drenthe make it even harder to stay at the front, increasing the risk of missing out when crosswinds give way to echelons.
Getting to the first intermediate sprint, the peloton was split due to the wind. It all came back together though, but the first warning shot was fired.
The concept of sprinting for the city limit signs is a common thing in the Netherlands, just like it is in the rest of the world, but with the quick succession of towns and villages in the Netherlands, it means you’re sprinting about every 5 kilometers. Dutch races also end in bunch sprints quite often, because of the flatness, so sprints are an essential part of cycling in the Netherlands. The first UCIWWT sprint points were awarded in Drenthe, with Majerus taking the first intermediate sprint ahead of Anna Trevisi (Alé Cipollini) and Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv).
An unexpected turn of events: the world champion exits the race
Not typically Dutch, but well worth mentioning, is the fact that after two hours of racing, Boels-Dolmans reported on their Twitter account that World Champion and UCIWWT leader Lizzie Armitstead left the race, because she felt sick. Not the type of exit you’d like to see for one of the top favourites for today’s win and proud wearer of the very first Women’s WorldTour leader’s jersey. Without any more surprises, she was going to lose the leader’s jersey after this race.
More cobbles and more sprints
The peloton split and rejoined multiple times throughout the first two hours of racing, but at the thirdd cobble section, the race was definitively settled for the breakaway of the day.
The peloton split into three parts and another four riders were able to distance themselves from the first peloton, leaving 22 riders to chase. Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv), Chantal Blaak (Boels-Dolmans), Trixi Worrack (Canyon-SRAM) and Gracie Elvin (Orica-AIS) formed the lead group and worked well together to get the gap up to over 30 seconds quickly. With four teams represented in this group and all riders with a strong reputation, it quickly looked like this was the group that would sprint for victory at the finish.
Whether she was just a little too tired after the World Track Championships in London last week or it was solely due to the wind wreaking havoc on the course, last year’s winner Jolien D’Hoore (Wiggle High5) would find herself at the back when the bunch split, nearly a minute down to the 22 chasers and even more to the four leaders, at 50 kilometers to go. With her teammate Giorgia Bronzini riding in the same group, it looked like another two favourites were out of contention for the win early in the race.
All of Wiggle High5 missed out on the lead group, and it was therefore up to them to head the chase. But since Boels-Dolmans, Canyon-SRAM and Rabo-Liv represented in the lead groups and therefore not whole-heartedly aiding Wiggle High5’s efforts, the chase was destined to fail.
That steep, short climb again
The efforts of the Wiggle High5 riders were felt when the VAM-berg was crossed for the second time. Johansson led the chase group up the climb, but saw all her teammates fall to the back of the group.
Around a minute ahead of them, Van der Breggen had crossed the line at the top of the VAM-berg first, earning herself some points in the QOM classification.
Another unexpected turn of events
In between the second and final climb of the VAM-berg, the chase group was joined by the rest of the peloton. With 30 kilometers to the finish, anything could happen at this point. Fresh troops were now able to help get the gap down and pre-race favourites like D’Hoore, Bronzini and Lisa Brennauer (Canyon-SRAM) all of a sudden saw a chance for victory again, giving new morale to this group.
The gap was just under 2 minutes when the peloton crossed the VAM-berg for the final time though, so it was far from certain they would be able to get to the four leaders in time. An exciting finale was about to commence.
Even with the efforts of riders like D’Hoore and Iris Slappendel (United Healthcare), working really hard to get back to the four leaders, they weren’t able to close the gap. And so it was down to a sprint.
With Worrack and Blaak as the fastest sprinters, it was up to Van der Breggen and Elvin to come up with a different plan for winning the race. Neither of them could get away though and the four of them rode to the finish line together. Elvin put in a late attack, but was counter-attacked by Blaak, who managed to hold the lead position until she crossed the line, throwing her arm up in victory.
Behind Blaak, Elvin finished second and Worrack rounded out the podium.
Elvin has been showing great form this season, getting into breaks in nearly all races she started.
“I’ve been riding really well, I just needed some luck and today I got it. Obviously I’d like to win, but second is a great step forward for me,” said Elvin. “The race was pretty slow in the first half, because of headwinds towards the first cobble sections. After the last section, I found myself away with three other riders. We were pulling hard turns to get away. Wiggle High5 missed out, so they were trying to bring us back. But I think they must have just died trying.”
Van der Breggen was too disappointed with her fourth place to comment after the race, so teammate Roxane Knetemann explained some more about how the race went.
“The weather made the race not selective at all, which isn’t good for stronger teams like us. We took the initiative at the third cobble section and were able to split the peloton apart. Then Anna [van der Breggen] put in a massive acceleration, getting the other three women with her,” Knetemann said. “And they just left off. We thought Wiggle High5 would close the gap, being the only team not in the breakaway, but they couldn’t or wouldn’t and the four sprinted for the win in Hoogeveen.”
Although Van der Breggen missed out on the podium today, she is the new leader in the Women’s WorldTour and was therefore awarded with the white leader’s jersey at the podium ceremony.
Van der Breggen’s compatriot Floortje Mackaij (Liv-Plantur) finished 3rd in the peloton sprint today, behind Marta Bastianelli (Alé Cipollini) and sprint powerhouse Shelley Olds (Cylance Pro Cycling) – with that she’s now leading the young rider classification.
Women's WorldTour Ronde van Drenthe (1.WWT) Hoogeveen → Hoogeveen
Women’s WorldTour standings
1. Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv) – 130 points
2. Chantal Blaak (Boels-Dolmans) – 120 points
3. Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans) – 120 points
Young rider classification
1. Floortje Mackaij (Liv-Plantur) – 6 points
2. Kasia Niewiadoma (Rabo-Liv) – 6 points
3. Lotte Kopecky (Lotto-Soudal Ladies) – 4 points
1. Boels-Dolmans – 306 points
2. Rabo-Liv – 278 points
3. Orica-AIS – 200 points