The Ronde van Vlaanderen is just as big a deal to the women's peloton as the men's if not bigger. Being one of the two World Cups that is run together with the men's events the women ride in front of the big crowds adding several levels of intensity. It's also one of the hardest courses of the year, 127 km, 10 hills, 2 major cobbles stretches contribute to make it about as challenging as it gets. The Kwaremont/Paterberg combo features in the finale just as it does in the men's race now but the Hotond is the final challenge on the women's course before they head for Oudenaarde.
The course is almost identical to last years, where Judith Arndt won, with the exception of the inclusion of the Molenberg early in the race. That shouldn't make for any major difference to the outcome even if it should drop a significant amount of the peloton early. Last year the race was decided on the Kwaremont just like course designers hoped presumably. This year will show if the attrition factor we saw last year is a given or if there is room for a different dynamic in the final kilometers? Arndt and Armstrong who broke away only expanded their gap over the Paterberg and run in to Oudenaarde, clearly being the strongest. Question is if this is going to be a pattern or if there is room for chasers to close escapees down in the finale like there was after the Muur on the old course. That course didn't make the Muur an automatic race-decider even if it often was, let's see if the new one is balanced as well.
As for favorites here's my personal ranking of the likely names we'll se at the front tomorrow:
Just like it did for Merckx, the Tour of Flanders win has eluded Vos long into her career. At this point it's the only major race she has yet to add to her palmares and there's no rational explanation why she wouldn't dominate here as she has elsewhere. Only cloud on the horizon is the unusually pale effort last week in Trofeo Binda. On the other hand..... she's Marianne Vos.
No other race comes even close in importance to Johansson who is based in Zingem (on the actual racecourse) in the season. Having moved to a bigger team most likely with the goal in mind not to be alone in the finales of the big races like Flanders. Emma has found herself outplayed by the deeper squads like Rabo and Specialized-lululemon (and HTC) in the past, perhaps this is the year she gets to be on the other end of those tactics? With a multitude of podiums in the World Cups she is itching to finally take the top step again.
Elisa Longo Borghini
Young Longo Borghini is the obvious in-form rider coming of an impressive win last week. She's one of those Italians who has really taken to Flanders as her favorite race and she has the massive advantage of actually getting better when the weather is rough. She's not the strongest in a group sprint though so she will need to pull something special off again to reach the top step.
Ellen van Dijk
With star riders out after some scary crashes Spec-lulu could be struggling if it wasn't for the fact that van Dijk has really stepped up this year. Even on the climby Binda course last week she made the podium and Flanders is a course that suits her abilities to a tee. Strong as an ox and powerful in a sprint she is perhaps the strongest challenger to Vos at the moment
Annemiek van Vleuten
Easy to forget in the shadow of Vos, van Vleuten is possibly the most complete rider of all. The combination of her ability and the tactical options open to her as a teammate to Vos is a lethal combo. Her form so far has looked a bit below her level when she won Flanders (on route to winning the whole WC) in 2011 but it looks to be on the rise.
On spectacular form, Wild is really back after her walk in Olympic track wilderness. The only thing holding her back in this race is her size making it hard for her to stay with the front if there is aggressive racing on the bergs. With any kind of passive racing, or if a bigger group chases back on the long run in to Oudenaarde she looks near unbeatable at the moment. She doesn't entirely control her own destiny though which is why she drops in the ranking a bit.
Another attacking all-rounder on a strong team. Gunnewijk is one piece of the offensive Orica team that has the chance to outplay the opposition with multiple attacks.
Winner of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this year, Cromwell is a rider you probably would have pegged for being too much of a climby lightweight to really excel on the cobbles but she proved she can really handle the most brutal of conditions. Can she repeat in a full field of motivated riders.
Boels Dolmans hasn't had such a strong opening to the season but Visser and De Ronde is a good combo. She shares a lot of the characteristics of former teammate van Dijk. On the right day her power and fast sprint could land her a win here.
Sadly Flanders isn't on Tibco's schedule so Blaak is riding for Holland on Sunday. She is the ultimate rouleur, the Björn Leukemans of the women's peloton. Always there on pure strength but having a hard time pulling off the wins. Look for her in a fairly early attack if she is going to steal the win.
Armitstead has the skills to be a Ronde-winner but her results so far this year have been a bit bland. A bit of post-Olympic blues perhaps?
Anna van der Breggen
The next big thing if her performances last year, at Worlds not least, are anything to go by. She was 9th in her first attempt last year and she's started the season strong for her smaller Sengers team.
With not many flemish women riders sadly, Druyts at least merits a mention.Mostly track focused she does get the occsional result on the cobbles when she gets to be injury free.
✰ Hors Categorie
A brilliant attacking rider who hasn't had that much success in De Ronde in later years but who will have a little extra firepower this time around. To be continued.....
The race won't have live video but Sarah has put together a little guide to how to follow the race as it happens on Sunday.