Dutch deliver as Chantal Blaak wins World Championships road race

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A dark horse pick on the Dutch squad, but a powerful contender nonetheless, Chantal Blaak (The Netherlands / Boels-Dolmans) traded in her Dutch national champion kit for the rainbow jersey on Saturday as she crowned herself world champion with a gutsy solo in Norway.

Still bleeding and showing the marks of a crash, Blaak shook her head as she came across the finish line solo. That she, a domestique who had been at the service of the formidable Dutch squad all day, would walk away with the win was unimaginable.

She’d ridden into the wind, chased down breaks, countered and attacked. She’d hit the deck and believed her race was over when precious minutes ticked away as she tried to free herself from the jumble.

But she persevered.

Her kit and skin were torn but her spirit undeterred. When she had found herself in a promising break in the final lap of the race, everyone had looked to Dutch race favourites Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten. And so she attacked, sneaking away while others gambled.

Every domestique has her day, they say, and today it was Blaak’s day to be rewarded for her years of domestique duties.

“I can’t believe it,” stated Blaak, tears glistening in her eyes. “When I crashed, it took long [to get back] and I thought my race was over. I never expected to win. I just wanted to make it the best as possible for the team.  I just followed my heart.”

“We raced the race perfectly,” continued Blaak, who’d been in the role of road captain for the day. “I think everyone was in a break today and everyone had a chance. In the end, I was the one in the right move.”

In the sprint for second,  Australian Katrin Garfoot came out on top, taking home her second World Championship medal of the week. Defending world champion Amalie Dideriksen rounded out the podium.

How the race unfolded

A gorgeous sunny day welcomed the peloton the start line on Saturday, Sept. 23 as 153 riders rolled off the start line in Bergen, Norway.

On the docket: eight laps around a 19.1-kilometre circuit around Bergen with the ultimate reward of the most prestigious jersey in cycling: the rainbow jersey. Each time through, the pack would have to conquer three climbs: a little 500-metre leg zapper followed by a one-kilometre stretch at an average of 5% before the peloton arrived at the main climb, Salmon Hill. Peaking 8.4km into the circuit, it’s this ascent of Salmon Hill that was anticipated to be the most decisive part of the course. It’s not a particularly steep climb — the average gradient is just 6.4% –but eight times would prove challenging for many riders.

Still, the hill was followed by a long 10-kilometre to the finish, which offered plenty of space for any breakaway to get reeled back in.

With everyone eyeing the formidable Dutch squad, the women’s road race got off to a slow start.

After some  TV time for Swedish rider Sarah Penton and British cyclist Melissa Lowther, Penton dropped back while Lowther continued to solo ahead of the pack, dangling at 15-30 seconds.

With a little less than 100kms to go, Dutch rider Lucinda Brand attacked on the cobbles, bridging over to Lowther. The duo was soon caught and as the pack passed the finish with five more laps to go, it was gruppo compacto.

Occasional accelerations and solos would come from the Norwegian riders mostly before a trio of Hannah Barnes (Great Britain), Amy Pieters (Netherlands) and Rachel Neylan (Australia) went clear. The trio would be joined by Brand, and the quartet dangled ahead of the peloton until two laps to go.

A crash in the chase saw Megan Guarnier (USA), Chantal Blaak (Netherlands) and two Italian riders hit the deck. And while most of them got back in the race, Guarnier looked to be in some serious pain. She would not return to the race.

Once the quartet was caught, a new breakaway formed and this time, it looked very promising. Thirteen-riders slipped off the front with potential race winners like Anna van der Breggen (Netherlands), Annemiek van Vleuten (Netherlands), Pauline Ferrand Prevot (France), Kasie Niewiadoma (Poland), Katrin Garfoot (Australia) and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Denmark) among them.

But as they neared the final lap, this breakaway, too, was reeled back in and immediately followed by a new breakaway. Blaak, still bleeding from her cash, was again joined by Barnes as well as Audrey Cordon Ragot (France). Again, Team USA had missed out and took to the front of the peloton to do the chasing.

Hoping to make the bridge, Australian Sarah Roy took on a solo chase, riding in no man’s land in between the breakaway and the chasing peloton.

Approaching Salmon Hill for a final time, the lead trio had a 43-second gap on the peloton while Roy dangled in the middle.

In the peloton, nations started scheming, perhaps anticipating a potential mass sprint after all.

On the Salmon Hill ascent, however, three riders joined and passed Roy in the chase, Van der Breggen and Van Vleuten among them. The leaders were reeled in seconds later and by the time the top was reached, Van Vleuten was in the lead with Niewiadoma on her wheel and Van der Breggen on hers.

Ten kilometres to go and the race defining breakaway was formed. The Dutch had three riders in the breakaway with Van Vleuten, Van der Breggen and Blaak. Garfoot, Barnes, Ragot and Niewiadoma completed the break, all of which looked to the women in orange to do the work. Behind them, the peloton had several chase groups at least 40 seconds down from the leaders.

As the leaders all looked to one another, Blaak attacked, taking another flyer off the front.  With Van der Breggen and Van Vleuten not doing any work, Barnes looked to Niewiadoma, who in turn looked to Ragot and Garfoot. Dutch national road race champion Blaak meanwhile powered on, extending her lead to 24 seconds.

“I gambled,” Garfoot admitted. “With three Dutchies, the odds were stacked against me. When Blaak went, I thought Van der Breggen or Vleuty surely wanted the win more and would chase her down. I didn’t work, because I had decided to gamble.”

With 3.7 kms to go, Niewiadoma attacked but was unable to shed her chase companions. Blaak entered the final two kilometres solo, while the chase of six looked to accept that they were now racing for second place.

And so Blaak had plenty of time to celebrate as she soloed across the line.

Behind her, the peloton caught the chasers and sprinted for second place en masse. Van der Breggen and Van Vleuten started the sprint early, going head-to-head, but it would the Australian Kat Garfoot who crossed the line in second, followed by defending world champion Amalie Dideriksen (Denmark).

“I didn’t even realise we were caught,” Garfoot commented.  “I was just focused on the sprint. It was a downhill sprint, I had the right gear, it all came together.”

Walking away from the World Championships with two medals, Garfoot now has one silver and two bronze Worlds medals.

“They all mean a lot to me, in a different sort of way,” she commented. “This one was a lottery.”

While she had stayed out of the selection controversy in the lead-up to the World Championships, Garfoot did mention that she hopes her medals will make Cycling Australia take women’s cycling more seriously.

Defending champion Dideriksen was satisfied with her bronze medal.

“I was super nervous coming into the race. I wanted to do a good job and defend my title as best I could,” Dideriksen said in the post-race conference. “It was a tough course for me, with the climb, but my team did an amazing job for me.”

“It all came together in the last 500 meters when we caught the front group. I had to start my sprint really early to go around the whole group. In the end, I came up 50 meters too short. Still, I’m happy with the bronze medal. We did well as a team and we are proud with the medal.”

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