Five takeaways from ‘Opening Weekend’ ahead of the women’s WorldTour season
New races, new team dynamics, and some great rivalries are taking shape
New races, new team dynamics, and some great rivalries are taking shape
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Omloop van het Hageland offered an early-season glimpse at the women’s 2022 WorldTour season, scheduled to kick off on March 5 in Italy with Strade Bianche. The two Belgian one-day events featured some of the same riders, some fascinating team tactics, and a lot to look forward to. While there are a handful of top riders yet to make an appearance, there is still a lot to take away from a weekend of bike racing.
With mere days to go before the first WWT event of 2022 takes place, let’s break down a few of the takeaways from a weekend of action on the cobbles and climbs of Belgium.
Annemiek van Vleuten dominating the early-season Classics is nothing new. The former world champion has won Strade Bianche twice, Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) twice, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Dwars door Vlaanderen… the list goes on and on. What’s impressive is Van Vleuten’s versatility. The Dutchwoman can win in any race that doesn’t come down to a flat bunch sprint.
A week before she sprinted to victory against Demi Vollering in Ninove she was winning a mountain top finish in Spain.
The last time Van Vleuten won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad she continued on a winning streak that lasted another four races before eventually losing the National Championship road race to Anna van der Breggen. That was in 2020, so there was a four and a half month gap between her Omloop Het Nieuwsblad victory and her next win at Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa, but still. All signs point to another Van Vleuten-dominant season.
The 2021-2022 transfer season wasn’t crazy active, but there was enough movement in the WorldTeams to make a difference in these early races, and there are a handful of new WorldTeams that don’t know how to operate together just yet.
The two top teams with numbers at the pointy end of a race remain SD Worx and Trek-Segafredo, however, both teams failed to deliver results over the weekend. Two of the three SD Worx riders who featured heavily in both races were new signings, Lotte Kopecky and Marlen Reusser. Reusser was in breakaways both Saturday and Sunday and Kopecky’s presence in the chasing group behind Van Vleuten and Vollering, and the strong spring she brings with her, was potentially the reason the chase never committed to bringing the two out front back. In the end, they had the numbers but Vollering didn’t have the kick, which will likely come around. It was her first race of the year after all.
Trek-Segafredo had Ellen van Dijk up the road in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and eventually, Elisa Longo Borghini got there as well but neither can do much in a sprint against the likes of Kopecky. The team gained a few new faces, notably the world champion Elisa Balsamo who won the opening stage of Setmana Valenciana, but when it comes to these Spring Classics they will have to figure out how to race without two of their strongest assets from 2021 – Lizzie Deignan and Ruth Winder. Deignan is taking 2022 off to have a baby and Winder transitioned to gravel racing at the end of the season.
Once Leah Thomas is able to join the team she might be able to fill that gap and when Lucinda Brand starts her road season (delayed because of her cyclocross season) she will be a huge help to her Trek-Segafredo teammates. They still have a lot of options in sprint finishes, diminished or not, and Van Dijk and Longo Borghini are both incredible riders who could throw down attacks to try for a sneaky move.
Canyon-SRAM were self-critical of the way they raced Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, especially Kasia Niewiadoma. “All I can say is we messed up quite badly,” Niewiadoma wrote on her Instagram. “We didn’t perform to the level we were capable of, ended in passive mindset thinking too much of the final instead of playing our cards unexpectedly.”
Niewiadoma’s team picked up quite a few new riders over the offseason. Both Shari Bossuyt and Chloe Dygert were making their debut with the team on Saturday. They had Sarah Roy, who transferred to Canyon-SRAM after a long stint with Team BikeExchange. For Strade Bianche they will bring in two more new faces with Soraya Paladin and Pauliena Rooijakkers. What the team needs are numbers to be able to play with Niewiadoma in the finale. A lot of the time by the end of the race Niewidaoma is isolated and doesn’t have a ton of options. Hopefully, with all their new riders, there will be someone up there with Niewiadoma to shake things up.
FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope was missing Marta Cavalli and Cecilie Utrrup Ludwig, two of their top riders. Grace Brown made the final selection to be in the chasing group behind the winners on Saturday and her teammate Clara Copponi was in the winning move on Sunday, but the question remains: how will the three leaders ride together? Uttrup Ludwig, Cavalli, and Brown are all capable of winning races this Spring and the three-pronged attack strategy could mean a breakout season for the French team. It could also be a disaster, as we’ve seen with Movistar’s men’s team time and time again. We will simply have to wait and see how this new dynamic plays out.
Liv Racing Xstra is probably feeling the loss of Kopecky already and were also missing the Canadian national champion who has the potential to be good in punchy cobbled Classics. Valerie Demey was their top result of the weekend in seventh on Sunday’s Omloop van het Hageland, five seconds behind the winning breakaway.
The two new WorldTeams who participated in the opening weekend, Uno-X and EF Education-Tibco-SVB, are understandably still figuring it out. Uno-X is good at riding together in the peloton as a unit, and Julie Leth finished 10th on Saturday, so it’s likely only a matter of time before the Norwegian team scores some results. EF Education-Tibco-SVB, who only started four riders on Saturday, also picked up a lot of new riders for their first WT season. Some of them are skilled in the Spring Classics, they just need to piece some things together.
Team BikeExchange started Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with only two returning riders so like a few of the new WorldTeams they’ll have to learn how each other rides before the end of the Classics season to get some results.
Three of the best “sprinters” in the peloton spent a good chunk of the weekend in breakaways and laying down full attacks. Lotte Kopecky, Lorena Wiebes, and Emma Norsgaard are all known for having impressive kicks at the end of a race but instead of waiting for a sprint Kopecky bridged to the winning move in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad while in Omloop van het Hageland Wiebes jumped in a move mid-race and Norsgaard tried out attacking, repeatedly.
Women’s cycling has always differed from men’s when it comes to riders specializing in certain types of races. A lot of the top women in the sport are just good bike racers, some happen to be better at climbing and some happen to be better at sprinting, but overall there aren’t many “pure climbers” or “pure sprinters”. A pure climber wouldn’t get many chances, there are about two race days a year that favour a pure climber.
Wiebes especially has been pigeonholed into being as close as a woman can get to a pure sprinter, and even though her time off the front was short it was still good to see her mixing it up. She’s one of the winningest riders in the peloton with 13 victories in 2021 but is often left off Team DSM’s startlist. With her palmares, it’d be great to see her in more races, jumping in some moves, trying some new tactics.
Likewise, Kopecky and Norsgaard are incredibly skilled and could easily become features in the upcoming Spring Classics.
Technically she didn’t go anywhere, but Marta Bastianelli came into the 2022 season absolutely flying. Not only did she win the Vuelta CV Feminas at the beginning of February and the final stage of Setmana Valenciana, she also took Omloop van het Hageland on Sunday. When attacks were flying and her top competitors were going up the road, instead of waiting for her teammates to chase, Bastianelli took matters into her own hands. She jumped into the winning move. Then, when half the break refused to work, Bastianelli put her face in the wind to make it stick. In the end, she was instrumental in the move surviving and she still outsprinted Norsgaard to take the win.
Bastianelli won some smaller races in 2021, like the second stage of Tour de Suisse and La Périgord in France, but the last time she won a Spring Classic was when she won Omloop van het Hageland and Tour of Flanders in 2019.
Looking beyond her controversial past, Bastianelli has always been an exciting rider in one-day races. With three wins in the legs already she will have a target on her back when the peloton returns to the Netherlands for Ronde van Drenthe.
Two members of the day-long breakaway on Saturday were interestingly two of the best time trialists in the world, Ellen van Dijk and Marlen Reusser. Reusser was off the front for most of the day on Sunday and at one point Van Dijk decided she wanted to be up there too, but they were eventually brought back.
Last season the two battled for the top step in most of the biggest time trials in Europe. Reusser won the European Championships with Van Dijk taking second and then Van Dijk won the World Championships while Reusser took second.
Seeing them off the front together at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was fantastic. It is the rivalry we need in women’s cycling. They will continue to encourage each other to be better. And with Reusser joining SD Worx in 2022 Van Dijk has her work cut out for her.
Stay tuned for a Strade Bianche preview and tons of exciting women’s racing to come!