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Dutchwoman Chantal Blaak is enjoying a stellar start to the 2016 season. She won Gent-Wevelgem last Sunday with an impressive solo run to the line, taking home her second Women’s WorldTour victory and third win in a month. She’d previously won Ronde van Drenthe as well as Le Samyn, and she came in second only to teammate Lizzie Armitstead in Omloop het Nieuwsblad.
Her incredible month of racing will be rewarded with the honour of lining up at the prestigious Tour of Flanders this weekend, wearing the Women’s WorldTour leader’s jersey.
“Flanders is my favourite classics race, and to be starting in such a beautiful jersey is very special,” she told Ella CyclingTips.
Already valued for being a super domestique, the 26-year-old Boels-Dolmans rider is having her best season yet and is proving that she’s more than capable of winning herself. She is finding her fitness early this year as she’s putting in her bid for selection to go to the Rio Olympics in the highly competitive Dutch national team.
As we get ready for the Tour of Flanders this weekend, here are seven things you should know about the Women’s World Tour leader.
1. Barely two months into the season, 2016 is her winningest year yet.
As mentioned in the introduction, Blaak has already earned herself three major victories this early season, two of which are part of the inaugural UCI Women’s WorldTour. With three wins and one second place in just four weeks, she is already enjoying her best season yet.
“Yeah it’s going super well. I am very happy,” said Blaak, perhaps a little surprised herself.
She works hard. No doubt about that but this season things are ‘just falling into place,’ she said.
“Everyone keeps asking me [what makes me so strong this season] and I find it a very difficult question to answer because I don’t really know,” she said. “I had a really good winter. I know it’s a bit cliché to say that but it’s true. I was able to train really well, I didn’t get sick and everything is simply falling into place.”
“It was my main goal to ride a very strong early season,” Blaak said. “The classics are my type of terrain and I wanted to show how strong I am.”
2. Going to the Olympics and helping The Netherlands win “would be a dream”.
“Going to the Olympics would be a dream,” said Blaak. “And it’s the motivation for me to ride extremely well this season to get selected.”
True to her domestique spirit, Blaak said she’d go to “work for others”.
“I think I could be of use and help. I hope I get selected but there are so many strong riders in the Netherlands. Selection is very competitive,” she said.
3. Blaak’s cycling career started at age 11 and she turned pro as soon as she came of age.
Blaak started cycling when she was just 11 years old, after having won a “dikkebanden race” (a ‘come as you are’ kids race done on regular bikes) in her local town.
“I just kind of rolled into it. It was completely by chance,” she said. “My family and my surroundings had nothing to do with cycling, but I was always very athletic as a child and I did enjoy competition so I decided to enter in the Rabo dikkebanden race, which I won.”
All the winners of these local races were invited to a finale, the winner of which would be given a membership to a cycling club. Needless to say, Blaak won that finale and so her cycling career began.
“More than anything, it was fun. I went about it in a playful manner and didn’t take it all that seriously, which I think is important when you’re young,” said Blaak.
Even so, Blaak saw a lot of success as a junior including various national titles as well as the European road race title in the Under 23 category. When her eighteenth birthday came around so did the offer to ride for the AA Cycling Team.
“I went straight from the juniors into a professional team. That was pretty unique to be given that opportunity,” said Blaak.
4. Growing up with four siblings, Blaak was always competitive.
“I am the oldest so it’s not like I had to fight for my position within the family but I was pretty competitive from an early age,” Blaak admitted. “In a game of cards, it was not rare that those cards were thrown across the table if I lost…that may even still be the case.”
But between her upbringing and her selfless and caring nature, she’s also often seen as “the big sister” within her Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team.
5. Her first pro team was that of her childhood hero.
“When I was young, Leontien [van Moorsel] was at the top and I definitely admired her as a young girl. So when I joined the same team as her, I looked up to her and learned a lot from her,” Blaak said. “In general, as an 18-year-old, there were a lot of riders in the team that were 10 years older than me, so I looked up to a lot of my teammates.”
6. Blaak is as dangerous in a sprint as she is in a time trial or on a solo breakaway.
While it’s frequently her sprint that lands her on the podium, Blaak can also put down a competitive time trial, and letting her go off on a solo flyer could cost you dearly (as she showed in Gent-Wevelgem).
An all-rounder, Blaak considers herself a bit of a Classics rider but aims to be among the best in the time trial.
She was part of Specialized-Lululemon’s team time trial victory at the 2014 UCI Road World Championships and a key to Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team’s silver medal ride in the same discipline in Richmond last year.
She was also the Dutch national time trial champion as a junior in 2006 and 2007. And after coming in third at the Dutch National Time Trial Championships last year, behind none other than Anna van der Breggen and Ellen van Dijk, Blaak missed the opportunity to start at the Worlds time trial by just 45 seconds. As only the first two riders are allowed to start at the Worlds time trial, Blaak hopes to make it into this top two this year.
“Again, it’s a tough battle to qualify with such world-class riders in the Netherlands, but it’s a fight I’m willing to take on,” she said.
7. Her strength lies in having a life outside of cycling.
Aside from her sprinting and time trialing prowess, Blaak said that perhaps her strength lies in being able to let go of the sport now and then, and to having a social life outside of cycling.
“As a professional of course you have your routine but I do like to let go of the sport every once in a while and to think about things other than cycling. I do think that is a strength of mine,” said Blaak. “I am a very social person and my social life is not something I am quick to sacrifice. I very much enjoy spending time with my friends, my boyfriend and family. If it fits in my schedule, I do think it energizes me.”
Be sure to cheer her on at the Tour of Flanders this weekend, where she’ll be trying to either hold on to the leader’s jersey or maybe hand it off to her teammate, Lizzie Armitstead.