Go Longo or go home: Tour of Flanders women's race preview

The recent trend in women's WorldTour racing has been for long-range moves to have a significant effect on the outcomes of racing, and Sunday's Tour of Flanders will likely be decided along similar lines.

Cycling: Tour Of Flanders 2021

Source: Getty

The Tour of Flanders sees the cycling world turn its collective eyes towards Belgium for a virtual pilgrimage to the 'hellingen' - the cobbles of the Flanders region - for the 105th edition of the men's monument, the 18th for the women. Australian viewers will be able to watch all the racing action on SBS VICELAND and SBS On Demand.

A 154-kilometre tough course is what stands between the women's peloton and their start in Oudenaarde to their finish in the same town approximately four hours later.

Ronde van Vlaanderen women's race
Source: RVV


The outer climbs in the men's race are generally viewed as a softening up period before the real action begins, but in the women's case they are that much closer to the finish and could see some significant action.

While it would be a surprise to see the Molenberg (76 km to go), Berendries (68 km to go) or Valkenberg (62 km to go) play a decisive role in determining the winner, they as a section are likely to be significant to the race and how it plays out tactically.

The Kanarieberg and Taaienberg double come as a quick double, finishing with 40 kilometres remaining.

The Kruisberg is next up and has been a decisive point in past editions but the real key point is the Oude Kwaremont/Paterberg double which closes out the climbs and leaves the riders with 13 kilometres to race into the flat finish in Oudenaarde.

The Oude Kwaremont was the key moment for the race last year, the spot where Chantal Blaak launched her attack which carried her into the solo lead over a group of five, which she kept all the way to the finish.

Whether we see a similar race script in the 2021 edition remains to be seen, recent races in the Women's WorldTour have seen long-range attacks either produce the eventual winner or shape the race well into the final kilometres. To name just a few; Elisa Longo Borghini's solo attack to win Alfredo Trofeo Binda from 25 kilometres out, Annemiek van Vleuten's assault to win Dwars door Vlaanderen (not a WorldTour race, but a quality field) from 33 kilometres to go and a Longo Borghini attack at Gent-Wevelgem with 20 kilometres to go was only swept up within the final 500 metres.

The contenders

Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) was mentioned a few times in the previous paragraph and she's clearly going through a purple patch of form just at the moment. Her win at Trofeo Alfredo Binda was special, accelerating away from the peloton and then holding off a strong chasing group to win solo and it looked like she was to achieve a similar feat with her attack at Gent-Wevelgem but a full peloton to chase and a clearly exhausted companion in Soraya Paladin (Liv Racing) sitting on meant that she couldn't quite hold it to the line. She's been a winner in the past at the Tour of Flanders and said that she felt she was ready for the race on Sunday.

“I was a little bit tired from Sunday’s race, which cost me a lot of energy both mentally and physically, so I just need a couple of days to rest and then I’ll be ready for Flanders," said Longo Borghini in an with Cyclingnews after Gent-Wevelgem.

The Italian national champion will be flanked by fellow previous winners in Lizzie Deignan and Ellen van Dijk on the strong Trek-Segafredo squad. Van Dijk displayed strong form to win the Healthy Ageing Tour and Deignan appears to be on the improve as the racing calendar approaches her first goal of the major spring classics. A slight surprise was that in-form Australian domestique Lauretta Hanson was left out of the squad as she's been influential in the finale of a number of hard races this season.

Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) is showing her form at just the right time, having only three race days coming into the Tour of Flanders. Her win at Dwars door Vlaanderen was ominous, with the sprint to win launched from a long way out and the normally handy sprinter Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) unable to pass her despite sitting in her slipstream.

The 38-year-old looked like she might enjoy less support for the 2021 season after the shift away from Team BikeExchange, but the emergence of Emma Norsgaard, in particular, sees the Spanish squad with a strong team in the Belgian classic.

The main threat to individual dominance of the race comes from SD Worx. Formerly known as Boels Dolmans, the team picked up directly from their former team's dominance and heads into the Tour of Flanders with an impressive series of tactically engineered victories built from the weight of numbers in the finale. 

That tactical superiority wouldn't be possible without a superb squad of riders and they have two former winners including defending champion Chantal van den Broek-Blaak and reigning world champion Anna van der Breggen. Blaak won Strade Bianche after sitting on Longo Borghini and van der Breggen launched herself up the climb to take third that day. 

Amy Pieters and Jolien D'Hoore have three runner-up finishes between them at the Tour of Flanders and not many would count out Demi Vollering or Christine Majerus as contenders either. They'll pick their spots and try and make sure that every move that goes has some of their team represented while the others rest up.

Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) feels like she's been around forever, but she's just 33 and looks like she's not going to stop winning any time soon. Her victory at Gent-Wevelgem was a patient ride capped off by her top-quality sprint, but she's shown plenty of strength at other races, most notably in Trofeo Alfredo Binda. She'll be the rider everyone else has to drop before the finish.

Grace Brown (Team BikeExchange) is the big hope for Aussie chances of victory, which would be a first. She's fresh off her maiden Women's WorldTour at Brugge-De Panne, powering away from a strong group of sprinters with a powerful move on the flat. She looked one of the strongest riders at Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars door Vlaanderen and Nokere Koerse and she looks to be getting stronger as the races get longer and harder. 

Brown will be flanked by fellow Aussies Sarah Roy and Amanda Spratt, both have gone deep into the race at the Tour of Flanders in the past, with Roy fifth last year. The rest of the squad don't have that same pedigree in terms of top results but after recent races, they have shown that they will be one of the strongest bunch of domestiques present.

Lotte Kopecky (Liv Racing), Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, Marta Cavalli (both FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope), Marta Bastianelli (Ale Cipollini), Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT) and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) all shape as riders who are outside threats for the race with their past experience at the race and current good form. 

One rider who will be keenly watched by all Australians is Sarah Gigante (TIBCO-SVB). The 20-year-old was well-known as a hot prospect coming into the season of cobbled races, but 2021 was expected to be more of a learning phase in her first extended attempt at racing in WorldTour competition over the unfamiliar conditions of the narrow, cobbled roads. 

There have been a few expected teething problems, she was getting dropped a lot in the crosswinds during Gent-Wevelgem before fighting her way back, and then concluded an aggressive showing at Dwars door Vlaanderen with an off-road excursion with just over a kilometre to go, again battling back to take eleventh overall. Surely it's too soon to expect the world from the enthusiastic Aussie, but the signs have been very good just a few weeks after arriving in Europe. 

SBS will broadcast the men's Tour of Flanders from start to finish with the early stages of the cobbled monument starting from 1755 AEST on SBS On Demand and the TV broadcast on SBS VICELAND joining the SBS VICELAND coverage from 2030. The women's Tour of Flanders race coverage will start at the conclusion of the men's, with an expected start time of 0015 AEST on SBS VICELAND and SBS On Demand. 

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8 min read
Published 3 April 2021 at 11:00am
By Jamie Finch-Penninger