Women's Ronde Van Vlaanderen
Italian Noemi Cantele is looking forward to this Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen. "It’s the best race of the year," she told me on Friday. Cantele is the current Italian National Champion in the time trial, and she finished on the podium in both the time trial and the road race at the World Championship in Mendrisio last year. At right, she shares the Mendrisio podium with Marianne Vos and World Champion Tatiana Guderzo.
Cantele also has numerous one day race wins to her credit. "I am not a rider for the general classification, but I can win stages," she said of her talents. Cantele comes from cycling-mad Varese, the home of a lengthy list of top Italian riders. She started racing at age 13, after trying other sports including swimming. "My destiny was to race. I got my first racing bike at age 3. It is in my genes," she said of the sport.
On the flip, Noemi Cantele tells me why the Ronde van Vlaanderen is the best race of the year. Also, we talk about how to earn a coveted spot to represent Italy at the World Championships. And, she explains why more and more people are "falling in love" with women’s cycling.
According to Cantele, this year’s Ronde is "really really a lot harder" than last year. She looked over the course on Friday from the car, because it was too much to ride so close to race day. The climbs and cobbles come all near the end of the race after 55 kilometers of racing. "Climb, then pavé, all in a row" is how she described the finale of the race. "It’s hard to recover, because you’re already on the next part," she explained. The harder race may prove more selective than last year’s edition, and the weather, which Cantele described as "Belgian," should play a role in the outcome. "It will be very interesting," said Cantele, laughing. Was that an evil laugh? Maybe.
This year marks Cantele’s first season with HTC-Columbia. "It is a really big change to come to Columbia," she said. At the Ronde, they will be one of the strongest teams in the race with two past winners, Ina Teutenberg and Judith Arndt, and it’s Cantele’s first time doing the Ronde with a strong team. "Last year, I was close, but I was missing a little," she said. This year, Cantele will ride with Judith Arndt, and the duo will look for a place to attack in the final climbs. "The climbs are really steep, I really love this kind of climb. I can really attack them," she said. Sprinter Ina Teutenberg, meanwhile, gives Columbia a good chance of winning, if the race comes down to a larger group finish. "I think we have the strongest team. The others will be very scared," laughed Cantele.
What makes the Ronde so special? The climbs, of course. "It’s also always technical. You have to always have the course in your mind," explained the Italian. Knowing the course is crucial, because the race unfolds as a constant battle for position. Arriving at a key climb too far back in the field can mean disaster. "You have to memorize it. You have to know where you have to be in the front," Cantele emphasized. A rider who wants to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen will ride in the top 10-15 places the whole day. On Friday, Cantele went out in the car and looked at the opening kilometers of the race especially carefully. "In my mind, I almost have every kilometer of the race," she said.
The Ronde van Vlaanderen also has atmosphere, and it’s one of the few women’s races that runs at the same time as a major men’s race. "We are lucky to race on the same day. "The cheering, you have all these people, this support," Cantele said of sharing the course with the men. Like in her home country of Italy, the Belgians love cycling and they all turn out for the big race. "You really feel the passion. It gives me adrenalin!"
Looking ahead, Cantele wants to race well at the World Cup races this season. After the Ronde van Vlaanderen, she will race the Ronde van Drenthe and La Flèche Wallonne, which along with the Ronde and the World Championships ranks among her favorite races. "I really like the Giro d’Italia, too" she added. "After last season, I showed that I can be in the top with the best riders," she said. The transfer to HTC-Columbia brings an exciting mix of riding for her own results and playing a supporting role to the team’s other talented riders. "I like to have the chance to win, but also to help others win," she explained. Indeed, Cantele’s attack in the finale of the Mendrisio road race proved crucial in setting up Tatiana Guderzo’s winning move.
Three riders are almost certain to represent the Azurri at this year’s World Championship: Current World Champion Tatiana Guderzo, Giorgia Bronzini, and Noemi Cantele. "We can do really well," Cantele said of the Australian course, which recent reports have suggested is not entirely for sprinters. "They told me it would be good for me," with some of the classics style climbing that Cantele likes best. She will also ride the Italian National Championship time trial again, but she views the championship as a stepping stone to Worlds. She plans to do more training and to work on her position. She is especially glad to have the help and resources that HTC-Columbia provides. "The team can do a big thing, I think for this, we are really good," she explained. Cantele is confident that she will represent Italy in Melbourne, but "you have to always prove your shape when you get closer." "I will be perfect!" she promised.
In Cantele’s view, women’s cycling is growing stronger all the time. "Sometimes new friends come to watch the race for the first time. All these people, they fall in love with our sport," she says. After Worlds, "a lot of people told me it is better to watch our race than the men’s race," Cantele said. "We can make a show also, you know?" Cantele said that the recent successes of the Italian women at Worlds had drawn more attention to women’s racing in Italy.
She pointed to the growing professionalism in the women’s field as one reason for its increasing appeal. "We need teams like Columbia who invest a lot of money and marketing. A lot of riders can be supported in a more professional way now," she explained. In the past, sometimes the women’s races were "boring." With stronger teams, the women’s races have become more tactical and "there is a sense to the race." Like many observers, Cantele thinks that women’s racing would benefit from better television coverage. "Now we need more television coverage, like from EuroSport," she said. Television coverage of the World Cup races, especially, would help to draw in more fans. "We have to be professional," she emphasized. The professionalism runs both ways, of course. The women need the sponsorship support to devote their full energies to racing, but they also have to be sure to race hard in return. Cantele seems to understand this exchange. "When you can give a high level product, high quality, then people come to watch," she commented.
Certainly, there will be plenty of people watching roadside on Sunday, when the women will chase victory over the same storied roads as the men. We can expect to see plenty of HTC-Columbia jerseys at the front, marked closely by the big favorites Emma Johansson, Marianne Vos, Nicole Cooke, and Kirsten Wild. In recent Worlds races, Cantele has shown an attacking style, and together with Judith Arndt, she will be among the riders trying to break the legs of the sprinters and bring a small group to the finish.
To wish someone luck in Italian is to say, "in bocca al lupo!" The phrase literally means "into the mouth of the wolf." After thanking Noemi Cantele for her time, I wished her in bocca al lupo. Her reply? "I will slay the wolf!!!"
Story by Jen See.
Photo credits: Worlds photos, Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport.
Cobbles, Chris Fontecchio, Podium Cafe. All rights reserved.