By the numbers: What it takes to be competitive at the women’s Tour of Flanders

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The Tour of Flanders. It’s one of the toughest and most prestigious one-day races on the Women’s WorldTour calendar. With narrow, winding roads plus a bevy of tough, cobbled climbs, it’s a race that demands plenty from those who take it on, and especially from those challenging for victory.

In the following piece, Dig Deep Coaching director and former pro racer Stephen Gallagher breaks down the power files of a handful of riders from the recent Tour of Flanders to see what it takes to be at the pointy end.

Note: This article discusses the power outputs and power-to-weight ratios of professional cyclists. For more information on these concepts, and to see where you stack up, click here. This article also mentions normalised power. To read more about this concept, click here.


The early break

The 159km race kicked off in typically aggressive fashion. The long distance did not deter the early attackers, who made the race hard from the start. A group of seven riders made up the main breakaway of the day which included Italian rider Ilaria Sanguineti (Valcar Cylance). This group worked well in the opening kilometres of the race and gained a maximum advantage of nearly three minutes.

As in many important classics, the effort and power required to make the break and open a gap is often as hard as (if not harder than) any effort required later in the race. This was the case for Sanguineti who hit most of her peak powers in the opening 30 minutes of racing. This is not easy, both mentally and physically, with the prospect of 150km of very tough road still to tackle.

The Italian’s big effort to get in the lead group amounted to 286W (4.47 W/kg) for nearly four minutes. In the first 30 minutes of racing Sanguineti averaged 230W (3.59 W/kg) as the break worked well together to get as big a gap as possible before hitting the steep climbs later in the race.

Comparing Sanguineti’s data to that of Australia’s Sarah Roy (Mitchelton-Scott) — who was in the comfort of the peloton — shows that the latter averaged 165W (2.5 W/kg) in the protective bubble of the main field. More than 1 W/kg — or about 40% more effort — was required to stay with the break and build up a lead.

Into the Hills

As the race headed into the first notable climbs after 55km, the break still had a substantial lead. This was down to the cohesion within the front group and the sustained effort over the opening three hours of racing.

The first climb of the day was the Achterberg which was followed by a quick succession of climbs over the proceeding 40km. Ilaria Sanguineti rode these climbs at around 4-4.5 W/kg, a relatively steady level that allowed the group to power over the climbs but then, crucially, keep the pace high between the climbs.

Sanguineti’s data from the opening climbs:

In the peloton, which was around 2-3 minutes behind at the time, the pace had increased and the riders had to produce several more explosive efforts on the climbs.

Australian rider (and coach at Dig Deep Coaching) Jessica Allen (Mitchelton-Scott) was one of the key domestiques early in the race, helping to keep her team leaders in good position. Allen had a crash early on but fought back to the bunch to ensure that the team was in the best position and able to respond when needed during this very tense period of the race.

Compare Allen’s numbers over the opening climbs to those of Sanguineti in the break.

Jessica Allen’s data from the opening climbs:

Within the bunch, the pace was a lot more erratic with bigger efforts on the climbs. Generally, the required effort was around 5-5.5 W/kg for most of the early climbs compared to the 4-4.5 W/kg of the breakaway. This difference in effort had a noticeable impact on the breakaway’s lead — the gap was nearly halved by the start of the Muur-Kapelmuur after 80km.

The 16km leading into the Muur-Kapelmuur was fast as the effort to bring back the initial break intensified. Many riders in the peloton had to go into the red to stay in contention. This sector before the famous Muur was ridden at 179W (2.98 W/kg) for Sanguineti in the leading break while Allen had to ride at 190W (3.45 W/kg) to stay at the head of affairs within the peloton.

The pace on the Muur van Geraardsbergen itself was too high for some of the breakaway members and some got dropped on the climb.

Sanguineti’s data from the Muur:

It was on this climb that Sanguineti set her peak three-minute power as she soldiered on at the front of the race. This effort was matched by the peloton, where the big teams pushed onto this iconic climb. Many of the favourites could be seen at the front of the peloton for the first time and many riders lost contact under the ferocious pace, proving that it had been a fast race so far.

Australian Gracie Elvin (Mitchelton-Scott) was one of the protected riders on her team along with pre-race favourite Annemiek van Vleuten. Elvin was at the font of the bunch as they powered over the cobbles. Compare Elvin’s data over the Muur to that of Sanguineti in the break.

Gracie Elvin’s data from the Muur:

Attacks Start

The next important phase of racing started about 15km after the Muur, on approach to the final climbs. The break still had a small advantage before the Kanarieberg climb with 45km to go but the pace in the bunch was very high.

Allen took the final run into this climb full gas, averaging 400W (7.27 W/kg) and 67kph for the 600m before turning onto the climb. Such a big effort was critical in ensuring that the whole Mitchelton-Scott team was at the front and out of harm’s way before the 2.5km-long climb of the Kanarieberg began.

It was also during this period, from before the Kanarieberg and the Taaienberg, that Sarah Roy was taking charge of covering moves for Mitchelton-Scott and driving the peloton towards the final showdown. Roy hit her peak 20-minute power here: 267W (4.05 W/kg). Roy was repeatedly hitting peaks of 700-800W as she jumped to neutralise attacks and maintain position at the front on the twisting and narrow roads.

There was still a large bunch left to contest the final three climbs of the race near the town of Ronse, 25km before the line. On the first of these climbs, the Kruisberg, the main favourites started to play their cards. Elvin was aggressive again in a strong move that caused the main group to fragment.

During this period and over the top of the climb, Elvin did her peak 10-minute power of 281W (4.32 W/kg). It was this brutal effort after more than 130km of racing that allowed her to be part of a group of 30 from which the winner would come.

Elvin’s data from the Kruisberg/Hotond:

Final Showdown

As we’ve seen in many editions of the Tour of Flanders — women’s and men’s — the Oude Kwaremont played a pivotal role in the outcome. A group of about 30 riders headed full steam into the longest of the cobbled climbs. Massive crowds were waiting to cheer the women on as the fight for position started in the fast run into the right-hand corner. This turned the riders onto the narrow road leading them to the foot of the climb. Elvin kicked at 513W (7.9 W/kg) for seven seconds just to keep her position within the bunch prior to the start of the climb.

The major attacks on the climb came from eventual winner Marta Bastianelli (Team Virtu Cycling) and the pace did not let off until the top. A lead group of five riders hit the top of the climb just behind Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Bigla Pro Cycling Team), who had escaped with a few seconds’ lead. Elvin was in the second chasing group only a handful of seconds behind the Bastianelli group. With Mitchelton-Scott team leader Annemiek van Vleuten at the front, it was a very good situation for the Australian team.

It was on the Oude Kwaremont that Elvin set all her peak powers from one minute (431W; 6.63 W/kg) to six minutes (317W; 4.88 W/kg).

Gracie Elvin’s data from the main part of the Oude Kwaremont (1.4km):

The pace stayed high as the van Vleuten group forged ahead and hit the bottom of the Paterberg with 12km to go. Coming right after the descent from the Oude Kwaremont, the steep Paterberg (350m at more than 12%) has been a launch pad for many crucial moves in recent editions of the Tour of Flanders.

In the 2019 edition, Annemiek van Vleuten tried to go solo. This proved to be impossible, even with the blistering speed she went up the climb. It took van Vleuten just 1:26 to climb the Paterberg at 14.6kph — only 10 seconds slower than Greg Van Avermaet in the men’s race!

In the last 8km of the race Elvin averaged 45kph, fighting for a top 10 finish. Three leaders – Bastianelli, van Vleuten and Uttrup Ludwig, managed to stay away and the victory went to Bastianelli with van Vleuten coming in second. Elvin contested the sprint for eighth about one minute behind and she was able to finish 13th. In the final sprint to the line Gracie put out a massive peak 10-second effort of 894W (13.75 W/kg) with a peak power of 1,009W (15.52 W/kg).

With exciting racing and a worthy winner, the biggest one-day classic on the Women’s WorldTour calendar did not disappoint.

Gracie Elvin’s overall stats

About Dig Deep Coaching

Dig Deep Coaching is a global coaching company that works with athletes of all levels across the following disciplines: road, track, cyclocross, MTB and triathlon. Whether you are taking part in your first ever gran fondo or aiming to compete in the professional peloton, Dig Deep Coaching can help you out. Get in touch via email or follow Dig Deep Coaching at Facebook and Twitter.

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