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She had been outspoken about wanting the win, and after an already dominant start to the season, there was little doubt that Lizzie Armitstead would be victorious in Flanders. But Wiggle-High5’s Emma Johansson sure didn’t make it easy for Armitstead and ultimately came down to a bike throw, with Armitstead edging out Johansson by little more than the width of a bike tyre. Teammate Chantal Blaak, wearing the Women’s WorldTour leader’s jersey outsprinted the chase for third place.
The Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen) is not your average cycling race. It’s in a category of its own. You can see that watching the race on television, but being present at this race for the first time ever, I can confirm it truly is something else.
Travel directions to the Ronde are up on the highway even 30 minutes from Oudenaarde, where the start of the women’s race and finish of both Rondes van Vlaanderen are situated.
The entire city, probably even the entire province of Flanders, is focused on this cycling race only today. Its nickname, the ‘high mass’, is therefore truly the correct term, with all of Belgium heading out for this holy race.
The men’s race celebrates its 100th edition this year, giving it extra historical allure and a reason for additional celebrations. But even in the lesser celebratory 13th edition of the women’s race, we’re happy about the fact that this magnificent race is part of the inaugural Women’s WorldTour, which has had a bit of a false start, but is now up and running with highlight video’s after the race and today even live images starting at 40 kilometers from the finish.
Start in Oudenaarde
At the Markt in Oudenaarde, a peloton of 176 riders lined up for their start of the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
As the men have their own start location in Brugge, it was encouraging to see lots of people decided not to go to the men’s start, but come to Oudenaarde for the start of the women’s race instead. It was a mad house and it was really awesome to conclude cycling fans actually came to Oudenaarde for the female riders specifically, not visiting them because they were actually watching the men and happened to just be there. Women’s cycling is on the rise, for sure.
The peloton had three returning winners among them today, with 2014 winner Ellen van Dijk (Boels-Dolmans), fellow Dutchwoman Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-AIS) who won in 2011, and last year’s winner Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5).
Women’s WorldTour standings
A quick reminder of those Women’s WorldTour standings ahead of the Ronde. Blaak went into the race as the leader, with 258 points against teammate Armitstead’s 248 points in second place. Emma Johansson (Wiggle High5) was in third place with 185 points, whereas Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv) sat in fourth with 180 points.
The winner of the race receives 120 UCIWWT points, so nothing’s lost yet, but the dominance of Boels-Dolmans this year is unprecedented.
It’s not surprising Boels-Dolmans is also leading the team classification well ahead of Rabo-Liv and Wiggle High5 in second and third place.
The young rider jersey – unlike the official press releases by the UCI have stated – was on the shoulders of Floortje Mackaij (Liv-Plantur) at the start. The new women’s coordinator Morgane Gaultier apologized sincerely for this mix up before the start.
Gaultier has been in office for a couple of weeks now, but with all the women’s issues that have to be dealt with, she hasn’t had the time to get into all aspects of the Women’s WorldTour and explained she was incorrectly informed by UCI commissaires that it was still Kasia Niewiadoma (Rabo-Liv) leading the young rider classification.
Niewiadoma does have an equal number of points to Mackaij, making it an interesting battle between the two today. Alexis Ryan (Canyon-SRAM) started the race with six points in this classification.
It was an uneventful start of the race, partly due to the high speed as everyone wants to get into an early break in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and partly because of the high anticipation of what was to come later in the race. The crowds and surroundings at the start are still unique for women’s cycling, which might also make the riders a little more nervous as it emphasizes what an important race it is.
A number of women used the anticipation to try to get into that early break, but the peloton decided this wasn’t the course to go and chased them back, the high speed causing lots of women to get dropped straight away.
The nervousness caused a few crashes in the early part of the race too, leading to Aurore Verhoeven (Lointek) and Janicke Gunvaldsen (Team Hitec) having to leave the race very early.
Four riders were able to get a little gap after seventy minutes of racing: Lauren Hall (Team Tibco), Jessy Druyts (Topsport Vlaanderen-Etixx), world TT champion Linda Villumsen (United Healthcare) and Dalia Muccioli (Alé Cipollini). They couldn’t really get away too far and at the top of the Wolvenburg, the first climb of the day, the peloton was back together, the speed in the bunch still very high.
Three cobble sections and the climb of the Molenberg later, the peloton was still drawn out in one long line, but as the peloton reached the fourth cobble section, the Paddestraat, we can say nothing really noteworthy happened thus far.
It was only at kilometer 65, just after the Paddestraat, that the bunch split and the first real selection of the day was made.
Rabo-Liv’s Thalita de Jong took the moment as an opportunity to escape off the front, getting one chaser behind her in the person of Iris Slappendel (United Healthcare).
De Jong increased her lead to 40 seconds, with a bunch consisting of only 70 women at this point chasing her, and Slappendel in between at 25 seconds.
It turned out to be a chasse patate for Slappendel, not able to close the gap to De Jong and returning in the peloton just before it reached the Leberg.
De Jong made it until the livestream started, with a lead of 15 seconds on the bunch left. On the sixth climb, the Kaperij, the peloton put an end to her break.
Unfortunately, the non-geoblocked Proximus livestream was unstable and the commentary by José Been and Wiggle High5 team manager Rochelle Gilmore was absent, but the Sporza livestream was working just fine – be it only available for people on Belgian grounds. Images of the women’s start were shown on national television, but soon afterwards, the live broadcast returned to the men’s race and followers of the women’s race were back left to the livestream.
De Jong’s teammate Anouska Koster took over defending the Rabo-Liv colours at the front, attacking right after De Jong was caught. But Boels-Dolmans and Orica-AIS decided they weren’t going to let her go, so she didn’t get the gap that De Jong was given and Koster was back in the peloton just before the climb up the Kanarieberg.
After another attack by Rabo-Liv, this time unsuccesfully by Dutch champion Lucinda Brand, eleven riders escaped the bunch and got a serious gap, including quite some favourites: Rabo-Liv’s Niewiadoma and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, Alena Amialiusik and Tiffany Cromwell of Canyon-SRAM, Boels-Dolmans’ Van Dijk and Armitstead, two riders of Orica-AIS, an Inpa-Bianchi rider and Johansson plus one of her Wiggle-High5 teammates.
Cervélo-Bigla, Alé Cipollini and Lotto-Soudal weren’t represented in the break and those teams worked really hard to get this group back, which they succeeded in doing so before the Kruisweg climb commenced.
The Kruisberg tore the peloton apart, leading to the final lead group of around 30 riders, all favourites except Jolien D’Hoore (Wiggle High5) included. No more easy kilometers after this point, with attacks following each other rapidly.
At the Oude Kwaremont, Johansson attacked, with an immediate response by Armitstead. It was the final successful attack as no-one was able to follow the duo. A chase group got formed with Blaak, Guarnier, Van Dijk and Longo Borghini as teammates of the two women in the lead, Rabo-Liv’s Niewiadoma and Ferrand-Prevot, Claudia Lichtenberg (Lotto-Soudal) and Van Vleuten.
With this composition of the chase group, it would become really difficult to get Armitstead and Johansson back, which showed with the gap steady at 15 seconds.
Johansson and Armitstead did make it a nail biting finish, by postponing their sprint for such a long time that the chase group almost got to them, crossing the line side by side, the speaker not able to identify the winner until after consulting the official finish photo.
The win was given to Armitstead, which left Johansson having to settle for second. Blaak got another Women’s WorldTour podium by getting third.
A very hard race
Seeing the women ride towards their soigneurs and getting off their bikes just after the finish, it was clear: the race might have started a little slow, but this had been one tough race. As Boels-Dolmans celebrated Armitstead’s win, Guarnier almost fell off her bike in total fatigue, reassuring us it was just a low blood sugar which is common after a race.
The US road champion recapped the race for us as she took her recovery drink. “It wasn’t so active at the beginning, but after the Kanarieberg we [Boels-Dolmans] started getting more aggressive and it started to split up. Lizzie was strong today and we knew that, we just had to have the numbers up the road. When Johansson went, Lizzie followed and that was the best situation for us.”
The rest of the field was left to chase, with Rabo-Liv once again missing out. Lucinda Brand, one of the Rabo riders that tried to force a break, explained: “It’s very hard if you’re out there on your own. If Thalita had gotten a little group with her, that would’ve been perfect for us.”
“We have been very active as a team, but Boels-Dolmans obviously wanted everything together until the last hour and a half of racing. Making it a hard race by then is near impossible, as you’re right in the final by then. Boels-Dolmans played it very smart, let’s leave it at that,” said Brand, obviously disappointed for herself and Van der Breggen, who finished 24th.
Van Vleuten got in another top 10 result, but obviously not the one she hoped for. As she looked at her blistered hands, exclaiming she has never had that in a race before, she explained about her race: “The speed was really high from the Kanarieberg onwards. It was a shame I was the only one of my team in that final chase group. Johansson and Armitstead chose the correct time to go and none of us were able to follow.”
“Since Rabo wasn’t at the front and there were two of Rabo [Niewiadoma and Ferrand-Prevot] with us, I was hoping they would work to close the gap. I was still trying to go for the win and not settle for podium, but it wasn’t to be. We got really close, so we did offer a great race, I think. You need to have a phenomenal day to be able to challenge the Boels-Dolmans squad, only then are you able to beat them. Emma got really close today.”
With another win to her name, Armitstead takes over the Women’s WorldTour leader’s jersey from teammate Blaak again. As the UCI has dediced the rainbow stripes trump the UCIWWT leader’s jersey, Armitstead will be riding in her world champ jersey in the Fleche Wallone, just as she did in Gent-Wevelgem.
Making it into the top 10 today, Niewiadoma once again leads the young rider classification, the jersey having changed shoulders between Niewiadoma and Mackaij after every race now.
There will be new chances in the Flèche Wallone, the next race in the Women’s WorldTour. Is there ànyone who can beat the dominant orange squad though? We will see on April 20th.
Ronde van Vlaanderen / Tour des Flandres WE (1.WWT) Oudenaarde → Oudenaarde
The UCIWWT standings after the Ronde
1. Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans) – 368 points
2. Chantal Blaak (Boels-Dolmans) – 343 points
3. Emma Johansson (Wiggle High5) – 285 points
Young rider classification
1. Kasia Niewiadoma (Rabo-Liv) – 18 points
2. Floortje Mackaij (Liv-Plantur) – 12 points
3. Lotte Kopecky (Lotto-Soudal) – 6 points
1. Boels-Dolmans – 1069 points
2. Wiggle High5 – 558 points
3. Rabo-Liv – 513 points