Chantal van den Broek-Blaak at Strade Bianche: a silent, ruthless tactician

The former world champion has proven time and time again that she is always a favourite to win, no matter the terrain.

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Perhaps it’s because she is teammates with Anna van der Breggen, a G.O.A.T. contender, or perhaps it’s because in any given race she has a teammate who specializes slightly more than her. If the race goes uphill, it’s Ashleigh Moolman Pasio or Anna van der Breggen. With a sprint finish eyes turn to Amy Pieters and Jolien d’Hoore. Chantal van den Broeck-Blaak, for all her success, still manages to sit in the shadows, waiting to pounce.

When Van der Broek-Blaak was being dragged to the final climb of Strade Bianche by Elisa Longo Borghini on Saturday, it seemed impossible that the former world champion would beat the Italian to the finish. The final climb suited Longo Borghini better, she had won the race in the past. All signs pointed to the Italian flag on the top step. So when Van den Broek-Blaak rode away from Longo Borghini like she was standing still, jaws dropped.

The thing is, no one should be surprised. Not only is Van den Broek-Blaak one of the most experienced riders in the peloton, she also has a treasure trove of victories from a variety of different races. She has been World Champion on a course that people would have called for a better climber. She won the Tour of Flanders last season with a solo breakaway and, in 2016, from a group of four. She won Gent-Wevelgem, nominally a sprinters’ Classic, but she can’t be pigeonholed into being a sprinter. Van den Broek-Blaak lines up at most races to work for her higher-profile teammates. But time after time she ends up crossing the finish line first.

All of these victories were won by her strength, her hard work, but most of all her ability to tactically call a race. What sets Van den Broek-Blaak apart is her timing. When the group of favorites was riding toward the Piazzo del Campo and attacks were flying it probably wasn’t her first choice to go away with Longo Borghini. She said it herself after the finish, “normally I cannot follow Elisa on the climbs, so I was super scared [of] her and I know she is also really focused on this race.”

Most riders in Van den Broek-Blaak’s position would throw in a turn or two, sharing the load in the wind. It takes a certain kind of ruthlessness, and hard-earned wisdom, to just sit on the wheel, not even fake a turn. She had three teammates in the group behind, and no obligation to work. She knew that if she sat on Longo Borghini either the Italian would tire herself out, leveling the uphill playing field for the final climb, or they’d both get reeled in by the chasing group, allowing Van den Broek-Blaak’s climber teammates a chance to try for the victory. Often the power of a strong team lies in riders like Van den Broeck-Blaak, even more so than the superstars.

The timing of Van den Broek-Blaak’s move on Longo Borghini was perfect. Gone any earlier and maybe Longo Borghini could have followed. She picked the perfect moment, when the road narrowed, making passing hard, going when Longo Borghini slowed down just enough to hint that she couldn’t follow. Had Van den Broek-Blaak waited any longer, the climb may have infused Longo Borghini with new life. That can happen, with a climber on her way to win in her home country wearing her flag around her body.

After watching the races at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Strade Bianche the question was: how can SD Worx be dethroned? They have the numbers and they have the tactical advantage. Well, with Van den Broek-Blaak sliding into a directing role next season, these last few performances may be the least of the peloton’s worries.

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