With the Women’s World Tour in its infancy, there have been a series of entertaining classics races so far this season, with the consistent theme being the strength of World Champion Lizzie Armitstead and her Boels-Dolmans team.
So far this season Boels-Dolmans have a clean sweep of the World Tour races, with Armitstead and team-mate Chantal Blaak snatching all four events to date. The biggest names in the sport will be lining up to end their streak at the Ronde van Vlaanderen ensuring they won’t have it all their own way.
The course is a bit different to the one the men will attempt later in the day. UCI restrictions mean that the female riders are only allowed to race up to 150 kilometres, so at 145 kilometres, the Ronde represents one of the toughest races of the year. There is less of a softening up period, and with the pace high from the outset, there is little opportunity for the lesser lights to go on the attack in the early break.
The peloton will reach the first climb with just under 100 kilometres to the finish. From there it is up and down the hellingen of Flanders, over the occasional pave sector and through the throngs of fanatic Belgian fans to the finish in Oudenaarde.
Key climbs will be the ascents of the Kanarieberg (1km, 7.7%) and Kruisberg (2.5km, 5%) before the riders have to contend with the famous pairing of the Oude Kwaremont (2.2km, 4.2%) and the Paterberg (400m, 12.5%). With only 13 kilometres to the finish at the top of the Paterberg, the winner has to be in the front group at this stage, or be prepared to chase very hard.
Last year’s edition saw Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5) take out the race with a long range move. She attacked with 40km to go, then dropped her breakaway companion to go solo for the last 30 kilometres. She won with a margin of 43 seconds.
Borghini will be hard pressed to repeat the feat this time around as sickness has thrown off her classics campaign in the last few weeks. Before that however, she was a very good fourth in Strade Bianche. If she is fully recovered, she’ll certainly have a shot at defending her title.
Wiggle High5 have a number of other options. The team is loaded with talent, which their results so far this season haven’t done justice to. The experienced Emma Johansson and Dwars dor Vlaanderen winner Amy Pieters are two other contenders, and they will be looking to take up the challenge against Boels-Dolmans and their run of success.
The Boels-Dolmans squad is far from just Lizzie Armitstead, though the World Champion will go into the race as the hot favourite after a number of scintillating wins showing her to be in fine form.
Armitstead can really do it all, and no one has consistently been able to match her when she’s turned on the pace in recent races. Blaak has been just as successful, taking two World Tour wins this season, the last at Gent-Wevelgem, where she put one minute and 24 seconds into the rest of the field with a long range move.
Blaak can’t be given an inch of leeway and neither can 2014 Ronde winner Ellen Van Dijk or the American national champion Megan Guarnier. Certainly the team to beat, it will be interesting to see how they use their numbers to their advantage in the race.
Rabo-Liv won’t have Marianne Vos, but they still possess a good selection of contenders with Lucinda Brand their form rider at the moment. Arguably their best chance at the win comes in Anna van der Breggen, third last year.
With a massive motor at her disposal, which has seen her emerge as one of the best time trialists in the world, van der Breggen is very well suited to the style of racing here. 21 year old Katarzyna Niewiadoma is another to keep an eye on after showing some superb legs to finish second behind Armitstead in Strade Bianche. She might have a tougher time of it over the cobbles being a lighter rider, but she’s a star of the future and has a lot of improvement in her yet.
Orica-AIS will be flying the Australian flag but it will likely be their Dutch star recruit of the off-season, Annemiek van Vleuten, who will have the onus on her to perform in the classic races which are her specialty.
A former winner of the Ronde, van Vleuten has the experience and nous to do well, and her form in recent races has been very solid. She may have to share leadership with Gracie Elvin, as the Canberra-born cyclist has really taken a step up this season with her performances.
Elvin was the only one initially able to follow Armitstead’s attack in Omloop het Nieuwsblad before being dropped by a late surge from the Brit. Then she backed it up with a long aggressive move in Ronde van Drenthe, which saw her take second in the sprint, just behind Blaak.
Another Australian with a shot of pulling off a big result is Hitec Products’ Lauren Kitchen, who is a consistent presence up the front of the race when it gets hard, and packs a fast sprint to finish things off. Kitchen is building upon her breakout season of 2015, and with the continued improvement she’s shown so far in 2016, she should be in the mix.
Tiffany Cromwell of Canyon-SRAM is another who can look forward to a good showing, though she will likely have to work for team-mates Lisa Brennauer or Alena Amialiusik.
Carlee Taylor will be looking after Liv-Plantur team-mate Leah Kirchmann. With some bad tyre luck out of the way training on the Cauberg, the Australian climber will be extra motivated to take on the steep and challenging course tomorrow night.
There have been so many absorbing races in the Women’s World Tour this season, and the Ronde van Vlaanderen looks set to continue that trend. With a big target on her back after two big wins already this season, Armistead will go in with the pressure to perform, but the unpredictability of the cobbles and the hunger of other riders to break her dominance will mean that victory is far from assured.