I love this race, it’s a really nice race. It’s stressful and positioning is really important", Gunnewijk told the Café, from the team’s Drenthe base in Dwingeloo.
"In the first 10km there’s the first time over the VAMberg, then it’s a real fight to get to be the first one on the cobblestones – and then the real race starts on the cobbled sections. You need a little bit of luck, because the stones are pretty bad, so you can puncture – that makes it hard, and positioning is crucial, and then in the final you have a two more climbs of the VAMberg. The hill is not that hard, but at the end of the race it can make a difference, and then you can have opportunities to get a breakaway, when you go through Hoogeveen".
Gunnewijk knows all about the opportunities here – she’s been on the podium twice, each time using every opportunity for breakaway action. In 2010, when she won for Nederland Bloeit, she got into a break of 11, and after some intense and aggressive racing, jumped at 1,500m to go, winning one of the most exciting races of the year.
"It was amazing", she said with a smile in her voice, "the year before, I was second by just a few millimetres, and in 2010, there was first a breakaway of seven, and I came with a group of three riders to join it. There were a lot of attacks, but I held myself back a little bit, and then I saw a really good opportunity in the last 1,500m, and I went, and there was immediately a gap. I went full in the corners and never looked back again, just rode full gas. And they hesitated a little bit behind me, and that was perfect for me! So I had a lot of goosebumps in the last k, but when I knew I would really make it to the finish, it was nice to have time to celebrate my victory, while they were sprinting behind me, and it’s an awesome feeling – really good memories."
The race was a beautiful one to watch, and a perfect show of Gunnewijk’s strengths. She’s the first to admit that she’s not a bunch sprinter, so it’s always in her interest to disrupt the trains, and make the race more exciting – and she enjoys it to boot. You’ll see her attack for herself and her team-mates, and as road captain, her team-mates’ success makes her just as happy as her own. "I really like to win", she says, so she’d much rather work for a team-mate’s victory than end up coming tenth herself, if the opportunities haven’t been there for her.
The road captain role has become more important in the last few years, as the women have been racing without race radios, and, as Gunnewijk says, communication becomes key: "If the communication within the team is not so good, you can win or lose a race because of it." Does it become hard, as a Dutch rider racing with a predominantly Australian team? "I speak Dutch to them and then they listen!" she jokes. "No, of course we speak English, and you don’t have to tell each other whole stories – you can be pretty short."
Sometimes "short" is an understatement! I asked her about a story from the 2012 Tour of Qatar, when then-ORICA team-mate Judith Arndt said in a team video that it was the way Gunnewijk yelled at her that made her attack, and go on to win the race.
"It was true! I said ‘Come on, Judith!’, and she said a bad word to me, and it was a good moment! I was like, OK, now I know what I have to do, just make her angry. We had a good laugh about that!" Will that work with the team’s new star rider, Emma Johansson? "Maybe!", she laughed, "I will have to try it – we will see!"
Amanda Spratt and Les Gunnewijk at the 2013 ORICA-AIS team camp - photo by CJ Farquharson, used with kind permission of ORICA-AIS
This year, Qatar was a bit different for the team. As with last year, ORICA-AIS sent a team of Classics specialists to the flat, sprinty race in February, and while they showed exactly how well they were racing together, attacking like crazy and forcing breaks and getting riders in every significant move, they couldn’t repeat last year’s success.
"The team was really strong in general this year, and we had a lot of good riders, but I think we also had some bad luck, because the wind in the final laps was sometimes too much of a headwind or tailwind and that makes it easier for the sprinters – of course, they still had to win, no bad words about that, but for us it would have been better to have a bit more cross-winds at the ends of the stages, because then it’s a little bit easier to hurt the other riders".
[Race winner] "Kirsten Wild was really strong – she did a really good job. That’s the way it is – but last year, we had a little bit more cross-winds, and we were attacking one by one, and she was also really strong at that points, but after so many attacks, she blew up and Judith was away, and it could also be me who was in the break. You have to try it a lot of times and see what breaks – that’s how racing works."
Of course, ORICA-AIS came away from Qatar with the team prize – and once that perfect Classics squad hit Europe for parcours that’s more to their tastes, things changed, starting with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where five of the ORICA riders were in the final breakaway, with Tiffany Cromwell jumping at the end and winning, and Emma Johansson taking her first of four consecutive third places in a week and a half. It was exactly the same tactics we’d seen at Qatar, and Gunnewijk explained the team rationale.
"For the whole of the last 20k, the four of us attacked the whole time - yeah, anybody from our team could have been in that final break, and it was Tiff – and then you play the game behind it, so every rider who wanted to attack, there was one of us directly in her wheel, and that helped Tiff to break – if it had been any else from us, we would have done the same, that’s why we’re in the team."
It’s interesting that a rider with such a strong team ethic started off competing in the individual sport of speed skating, but starting off skating is a common route for Dutch cyclists. Gunnewijk had always been a sporty child, but skating was the sport she really focused on, from an early age. She ran and cycled for summer training, but it was the speed on the bike she’d enjoyed. "I was always the last one who came back in running, and I didn’t like it too much, it was too slow – and in cycling I sometimes made the boys suffer, and I really liked that", so when she found she wasn’t improving as much as she wanted to in skating, she tried her first races. The main difference between skating and cycling, she said, was the need to learn tactics, rather than just have the speed, but she soon mastered that, and after just one season with a Club, was signed to her first UCI team in 2004.
Her career has always been at the top levels, racing with Dutch teams until signing for ORICA last year – and a highpoint was when she was one of the four riders selected to represent the Netherlands in the 2012 Olympic road race. The way that she and Van Dijk attacked from the start, before race winner Marianne Vos took over, made the race really fun to watch.
"It was also really fun for the legs!" she laughed. "That was our plan, for Ellen and me to make the race really hard, and let the others also suffer! You know, maybe you don’t get the breakaway, but other riders also have to put energy in it, and they don’t have that energy any more on Box Hill – and Marianne is more fresh, and that was our plan! I think it’s always good to go into a race with a plan, and just fight for it, and go for your goals."
It was a huge experience for her, and she describes it as a rollercoaster, with things happening so quickly it was hard to keep up, and you can hear how much it meant in her voice, as she described how it felt wearing the Dutch jersey at the biggest sporting event in the world.
"The crowd was amazing, we had so much goosebumps when we were warming up, and also in the race – the start and finish area by Buckingham Palace were incredible. It’s pretty hard to describe, if you were not there, you know – there was so, so much! After the race we had the celebration in the Holland Heineken House, and our Crown Prince, who becomes king in two months, was there with his wife behind the finish line to congratulate us, you know, that’s really amazing…"
She trails off, still lost for words about how much it all meant to her. It could have been difficult to continue racing after that, but for the Dutch, there was another big goal ahead, the World Road Championships on home soil in Valkenberg. "It was a little bit like I had to take a deep breath and then, OK, now we go to the end of the season", she says. "And I was riding really well in the Holland Ladies Tour again, and everything went really well until the fourth stage, and then I crashed, and so that was a little bit painful, and not the best way to end the season, but still, it was a good season."
ORICA-AIS at the 2013 team camp - photo by CJ Farqharson, used with kind permission of ORICA-AIS
After some time off the bike, which Gunnewijk spent in her typical rest-period style, catching up with friends and family, following other sports and "just relaxing on the terrace with a coffee", she was off to Australia in December for their summer racing, team camps and travelling – and she’s obviously enjoying herself with the team, and ready for more.
"The team spirit is really good this year – we love to race, and we love to attack and make the race hard. The team is relaxed, and we have a lot of fun - but when we work, we really want to work, and the girls always want to learn, and make each other stronger, and I like that also, just to have a laugh and just be relaxed when you can be, but when you have to work, be serious, and go full gas. We have had a good start of the season, so we are not complaining! But there are still enough races to come!"
Gunnewijk’s goals for 2013 will follow her previous patterns, focussing on the Spring Classics, especially the tough races like Drenthe and the Ronde van Vlaanderen, then aiming for the Dutch National Championships, and at the end of the year, the Holland Ladies Tour and the World Championships, especially the Team Time Trial. Above all, she’ll be enjoying the racing, revelling in the cobbles and the hills, and taking opportunities wherever they arise.
There will surely be many Gunnewijk moments this year, where she streaks out of the bunch up the road, the peloton scrambling to chase her, or she cannily aids a team-mate’s escape attempt. Next time an ORICA rider attacks like a madwoman out of the break, imagine what Loes just yelled at her – and how happy she’ll be if her team-mate wins!
You can watch this year’s Ronde van Drenthe World Cup live on Saturday 9th March 2013 from 15:00 CET (2pm GMT, 9am USA EST and 1am Sunday, Australia NSW) on RTV Drenthe – commentary will be in Dutch, but it’s always a great race to watch. There’s more information about the race on the Ronde van Drenthe website and race twitter, and on the Podium Café race preview.
Many thanks to ORICA-AIS for the use of their photos.