Lose a little or lose a lot: Longo Borghini’s Amstel Gold Race dilemma

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The entirety of the women’s Amstel Gold Race was aggressive, with a move countering every move throughout the day. No team would have won “most aggressive team”; every team was throwing everything it could at the race.

On the final ascent of the Cauberg, once many of the favourites had tried their hand and found their attempts unsuccessful, it was Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) left standing. The two charged towards the finish, only 1.3 km from the top of the final climb.

And that’s when things got a little strange.

Before that final climb, Grace Brown (BikeExchange) had been solo off the front. In the group behind, it was left to Niahm Fisher-Black (SD Worx), Lucinda Brand (Trek-Segafredo), and Ruth Winder (Trek-Segafredo) to bring back the lone leader in the closing kilometres.

Winder won Brabantse Pijl mere days ago when she slid into a small break in the final third of the race and then outsprinted Demi Vollering (SD Worx) to take the victory. But at the Amstel Gold Race, she was back on team duties, sacrificing her own chances for her team (and ultimately for Longo Borghini).

This is one of the reasons Longo Borghini’s strategy in the final few kilometres was slightly baffling.

Before the climb, Longo Borghini wasn’t well-positioned but when Niewiadoma attacked the Italian national champion rode past the splintering group effortlessly. After Longo Borghini tried to attack Niewiadoma and the Polish rider refused to be left behind the two should have traded pulls.

Niewiadoma, having won the Amstel Gold Race in 2019 with a very similar move, knew that the key to victory was not hesitating. From where the steepest part of the climb ended to the finish, there is space for the group behind to come together and chase. When she won in 2019 it was a narrow victory, as Annemiek van Vleuten closed the gap to Niewiadoma and nearly caught her on the line.

After Longo Borghini tried to drop Niewiadoma as the Cauberg topped out and Niewiadoma, head down, chased back onto the Trek-Segafredo rider there was barely any road ahead for errors. It was a brave effort by Longo Borghini, and if there had been a bit more climb she could have hit Niewiadoma with another attack and ridden solo to the finish. Alas, the climb was short, and with a straight shot to the finish, the best option would have been to work with Niewiadoma for the podium.

Behind, the group came back together with Ashleigh Moolman Pasio chasing for Vollering. By the flamme rouge, Longo Borghini had already stopped working. Niewiadoma, on the front, implored Longo Borghini to come around and help keep the chasers away, but the Italian declined.

The two were caught with 350 meters remaining.

After the race, Longo Borghini said “maybe we were looking too much at each other and they caught us. I felt really good, and the Cauberg was fun. I thought we could have arrived [at the finish as a duo].”

Looking at each other is an age-old tradition in cycling. How many times has a small group come to the line and all but stopped to see who would make the first move? It’s part of the game. But, it only works when the break is fully established and those playing cat and mouse know a chasing group isn’t flying at them from close behind.

On this occasion, perhaps Longo Borghini should have helped Niewiadoma a bit more and only started that game in the final few hundred meters. Niewiadoma is, on paper, a stronger sprinter, but in a fast race against the likes of Vos when there are no teammates left in the group, the only option is to work.

After all, second is better than eighth any day.