Preview: The route and the favorites for the 2022 women’s Tour of Flanders

Where, how, and who to watch at the women's Tour of Flanders.

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Is it just me or is the Spring flying by? It’s hard to believe we’re days away from one of the best races of the year, or at least one of the most looked forward to: The Tour of Flanders.

The 2022 season has been a bit different from the past two seasons. We’ve witnessed a lot of bunch or reduced bunch sprints this year, definitely more so than in previous years. The last time a single rider won three WorldTour one-days back to back was Anna van der Breggen’s Ardennes winning streak, the first year the women got to race all three of the Ardenne Classics, the first year of the Amstel Gold Race, in 2017.

Of the five WorldTour races that have happened so far, Elisa Balsamo has won three, with the other top sprinter of the moment Lorena Wiebes taking one and Lotte Kopecky another.

And it’s not like all the WorldTour races, except Strade Bianche, have been tame and thus ended with sprints. Each race has presented its own challenges for the riders and Gent-Wevelgem, the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, and the Ronde van Drenthe were aggressive until the closing kilometers.

So, after three sprint finishes in a row, will the Ronde van Vlaanderen finally mix things up? If Dwars door Vlaanderen is any indication we’re looking at another finish for the fast women, but I guess we will see on Sunday …

The route

The race starts in Oudenaarde before it passes over 11 climbs, six of which are fully or partially cobbled, and six other cobbled sectors before the finish back in Oudenaarde 159 km later. The final 45 km of the women’s race is exactly the same as the men’s, starting from the Koppenberg climb.

With three climbs taken out of the first half of the race, it could be a relatively relaxed start to the day for the women, which would in turn open the door for more attacks and general chaos in the second half of the race.

In the middle of the race, there is a series of cobbed sectors and climbs that will offer a launching pad for teams hoping to get rid of some of the sprinter types. From the Wolvenberg climb with 89.9 km to go to the Valkenberg with 63.8 km to go it’s basically a climb into some cobbles, into a climb, followed by some more cobbles. All told, it’s a non-stop 26 km stretch of challenges.

Then, there will be time for the peloton or anyone left on the back foot to regroup before the real meat of the race 18 km later.

For the 2022 edition of the Tour of Flanders, the race organizers swapped some of the climbs around. They took out the Berg Ten Houte and the Kanarieberg, both of which were within the final 50 km and over 1 km in length, so their exclusion does make the finale a little bit different.

In their place, Flanders Classics have included the iconic Koppenberg with 44.6 km to go and the Steenbeekdries right after. With a sector of cobbles thrown between the two climbs and as well as after, this will be a crucial point in the race. These two climbs flow seamlessly into the Taaienberg climb. After this short ascent there is very little breathing room before the final three climbs of the race.

As always the most exciting stretch of road will be the one from the Kruisberg/Hotond to the Oude Kwaremont and finally the Paterberg. If the race hasn’t kicked off already, this is where the key moves will be made. Teams tend to still have numbers on the first of the three climbs but by the time the race hits the Paterberg, it’s every woman for herself.

In previous years, the race all but ends at the top of the Paterberg. The 13 km of road to the finish doesn’t offer enough space for anyone to regroup and chase down a lone leader, like Annemiek van Vleuten in 2021. And if there hasn’t been a significant selection on the final climb, there’s no time to make one on the run-in to Oudenaarde.

The favorites

Looking at the last three WorldTour races and Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, picking a favourite for the Tour of Flanders seems dang near impossible. Will it be a sprint, like in 2017 when Coryn Labecki won? Or will Van Vleuten achieve another solo victory? It’s a toss-up, but there are a few stand-out riders to watch for Sunday’s race.

Although the final 20 km would suggest a sprinter probably won’t win, you can’t discount Elisa Balsamo. She’s on a winning streak, and her Trek-Segafredo team isn’t afraid to hold the race together for her. Especially when it’s paid off three times in a row. Balsamo’s teammate Ellen van Dijk is one for a solo move and has had an exceptional year so far. The European champion has earned the right to fight for a result. She previously won Flanders solo in 2014, beating Lizzie Deignan to the line by just over a minute.

Trek-Segafredo’s third option is Elisa Longo Borghini, who has had a slower start to the season but looked pretty strong in Gent-Wevelgem and is slowly building into form for the upcoming block of races.

Defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten took a break after Strade Bianche and returned to racing for Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday. She wasn’t able to win the mid-week Classic like she did in 2021 but the race played out differently so it wasn’t for lack of form.

Van Vleuten won convincingly last year even though her season hadn’t started as well as she’d hoped, and every time the Dutchwoman lines up for a race she is fighting for the win. Her teammate Emma Norsgaard is Movistar’s best bet if the race ends with a reduced peloton.

Another rider who has taken a bit of time off between races is Demi Vollering. Vollering played a key role in SD Worx’s win at Strade Bianche and will return to the startline a favourite for Sunday’s race. She’s been at altitude focusing on the upcoming season so it wouldn’t be surprising to see 2021 Vollering return in Flanders.

After her stunning win at Strade Bianche Lotte Kopecky has run third at the Ronde van Drenthe and fourth at Gent-Wevelgem, which means her sprinting may not be quite as fast as it was in 2020 and 2021 but that won’t hurt her in Flanders. If the race breaks apart on the final three climbs and she can ride up the Paterberg like she rode the climb into the Piazza del Campo, she can beat anyone left to the line.

Honourable mention to Marlen Reusser who has been in every major breakaway this year and has yet to notch a result. It’s coming, mark my words.

With her second place finish in Gent-Wevelgem, Marianne Vos marked herself as a target for Flanders – although, as the G.O.A.T., she would have been a favorite anyway. Surprisingly, Vos has only won the Tour of Flanders once. In 2013 she beat Van Dijk, Emma Johansson, and Longo Borghini to the line, with the next closest finisher coming in over two and half minutes later.

Vos’s Jumbo-Visma teammate Coryn Labecki looked fantastic at Gent-Wevelgem and won Flanders in 2017 from a reduced bunch.

FDJ Novelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope will start Flanders with their trident of potential favorites: Grace Brown, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, and Marta Cavalli. If organized properly these three are a terrifying combination. Brown could definitely attack in the final 13 km and ride solo to the finish. Cavalli and Uttrup Ludwig could help make the race hard on the climb. It all depends how they work together.

The duo of Lorena Wiebes and Floortje Mackaij gives Team DSM options with both a reduced bunch sprint and any potential moves. Mackaij will likely be active on the Koppenberg to Taaienberg stretch, while Wiebes would just need to focus on wasting no energy and being there at the end. We have seen in the past that Wiebes is not a bad climber, short steep climbs don’t break her, and with three victories already in 2022 she’s clearly on good form. Unfortunately, Wiebes crashed and didn’t finish Gent-Wevelgem but she’s had a week to recover.

Kasia Niewiadoma is constantly a favorite for races like the Tour of Flanders because her aggressive style and consistency is bound to pay off sooner or later. The Canyon-SRAM rider missed the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, a race she won in 2019, due to COVID-19 but was back at Gent-Wevelgem and looking on fine form. She may be an outside bet for the actual victory, but she will be there in the action regardless.

Finally, the 2019 winner Marta Bastianelli has been up there in almost every race this season, from winning Vuelta CV Feminas in February to finishing third at Exterioo Classic Brugge-De Panne. She’s been on the podium six times, and she won the Omloop van het Hageland. If the race goes in her favor it will also play into the hands of Balsamo, so she has her work cut out for her.

The bottom line …

Van Vleuten is going to make the race as hard as possible on the climbs, especially the final three. If Kopecky is feeling anything like she was at Strade Bianche she can hold on to Van Vleuten on the Paterberg, and SD Worx will really want to win this one. This time, however, Vos might be able to hold on to Kopecky.

It’s unclear how Vollering will factor after her time at altitude but chances are she will be feeling pretty good, giving SD Worx some options.

A big question is how Trek-Segafredo will race, whether Longo Borghini feels like she can try something on the final climbs or whether they will take the safe option and ride for Balsamo. It has worked the last three times, after all. In that case, can Wiebes hang on too?

There are a handful of riders who will want an aggressive race, with Niewiadoma, the three from FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope, and Mackaij being just a few.

CyclingTips star ratings

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: Van Vleuten, Balsamo
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: Vos, Vollering, Kopecky
⭐️⭐️⭐️: Brown, Van Dijk, Uttrup Ludwig, Wiebes
⭐️⭐️: Niewiadoma, Bastianelli
⭐️: Longo Borghini, Cavalli, Labecki

How to watch

The 2021 edition of the Tour of Flanders was apparently brutal. By the time the live coverage kicked off the racing had already been so fast most of the contenders had little to nothing left. So, for the casual viewer, the race wasn’t super exciting. In reality, all the excitement had already happened.

The great news is we’re looking at 30 minutes more of live coverage on Sunday so we will likely see the build-up to the Koppenberg.

Live coverage is available on GCN+ in all of Europe and Asia-Pacific starting at 5:00 pm local Belgium time. Viewers in Canada, Australia and the USA can watch the race on FloBikes.

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