We may not see it on TV (yet?) but this is the biggest day on the women's cycling calendar. Hopefully in a not too distant future this will be the first weekend in a massive double header as we get to watch first the womens Tour of Flanders and then a week later the women's Paris-Roubaix. The way things are moving right now it's not that far fetched an idea. Roubaix is the number one race on the top women riders' wishlists and I'm guessing in a few years it will be a reality, nay-sayers or not. For now the women's Ronde van Vlaanderen will mainly be a party for the ones lucky enough to see it from the roadside. The morning start in Oudenaarde is a huge party as the town is the center of all the events on Sunday and out on the big viewing spots at the Kwaremont and Paterberg the riders will be cheered on by thousands and thousands of fans already assembled there. The atmosphere there is magic and the fans this year may be in for a cracking race.
We actually have a bona fide Flemish contender for the first time in a long while. Grace Verbeke won back in 2010 (when the Podiumcafe were on the scene with a big delegation on the Muur to cheer her on) but she was never as good since and neither have any of her countrymen been.This year though has seen Jolien D'Hoore reach a level where she can be a factor in a race like this. She is not among the biggest favorites of course but if a bigger group stay together deep in the finale she is certainly in with the chance. Nothing would probably do more to boost interest in women's cycling and help convince the powers that be that a women's race as big as De Ronde deserves TV coverage than having a successful Belgian rider.
In another case we can file under "bike riders are certifiably crazy" Emma Johansson, perennial top contender for a Ronde win, who suffered a fractured collarbone on March 16 will actually take the start on Sunday. Johansson crashed in the finale of the Novilon Eurocup and seemed certain to be out for the rest of the spring classics but she had surgery the day after the race and was back on the trainer after three days. Apparently recovery has been good enough that she will give it a try. A test on the cobbles on Wednesday confirmed that the collarbone wasn't painful and she only suffered from stiff muscles. It seems crazy that she would be a factor to win but her love for the race (which goes through her adopted home away from home, Zingem) is such that she will go to almost any lengths to be on the start line. And knowing her attitude she probably wouldn't take the start if she thought it would only be for a tourist ride, she thinks she is in with a shout on Sunday or she wouldn't be there.
Where Will the Race Be Won?
The women's course has the Kwaremont/Paterberg crescendo in common with the men's edition and then they have a selection of the climbs and cobbled sections to make it into a 145 km mini version. They've basically eliminated some of those last Vlaamse Ardennen loops they do to make the men dizzy and gone for a more direct approach. An early flat loop, where nerves and a jittery large peloton is the biggest threat, makes for the first third of the race before they hit the Wolvenberg/Ruiterstraat and Molenberg where the real action begins.
Last year's winning move came on the Kruisberg when Ellen van Dijk rode off alone and as the others hesitated to follow they were ultimately trapped in a Boels-Dolmans deathtrap with Lizzie Armitstead patrolling the group behind to discourage any enthusiastic chase. Most were perhaps expecting van Dijk to fade over the last two tough climbs but that was not the case this time which shows that waiting for the Kwaremont/Paterberg to make your move isn't necessarily the only option. Normally we'll lose the weaker bits of the peloton already by the Molenberg and see a slimmed down group of favorites by the Valkenberg-Kaperij somewhere.
Somewhere around there team tactics are likely going to come into play. Boels vs. Ravo/Liv seems the likely hub around which hostilities are going to circle. With Armitstead/van Dijk/Blaak Boels-Dolmans look near invincible, especially after how they have performed so far this spring. Armitstead's convincing win in Trofeo Binda was confirmation that her form is superb and this year she will likely be the team's number one priority. We might not see her teammates taking as many freedoms this time around. So for riders like Anna van der Breggen and Pauline Ferrand Prevot the challenge will likely be to shake off Lizzie somewhere along the way, where and how is the question. For Rabo the tactic will likely be to have Anna vdB cover or initiate the earlier longer moves while keeping Ferrand Prevot focused on Armitstead, either to attack her on the final climbs or to challenge her in the sprints as we know she can. While not being as dominant as Vos at her best, Armitstead looks very commanding in races right now though. She has an edge on all the current opponents in the sprint and the short sharp climbs of Flanders are perfectly suited to her abilities so with her current form the other teams will have to think long and hard on how to outplay Boels Dolmans this time.
The one thing that still remains to be seen on the new Oudenaarde course is whether it can end up in a larger group sprint. So far a sprinter hasn't been able to win like they could in Meerbeke but it's still a limited sample. Theoretically there should be enough time to sew the race together after Paterberg but we have yet to see it.
Who Do I Need to Know?
The outsiders. We've already mentioned D'Hoore but there's no shortage of riders just below the top who could make their mark on the race. Bigla for instance has 2011 winner Annemiek van Vleuten who doesn't have the teamdynamics that helped her win then but she's been very close in Strade and Binda and this is the race that suits her best perhaps. So far the re-launched Bigla team hasn't had the big success maybe in part because Boels have gone on a rampage this spring leaving few scraps for other teams. Velocio-Sram have been in the same position, not featuring as much in races as we are used to, but this could be a good place for riders like Brennauer, Worrack and Cromwell to get back to winning. The team does have a history of doing well in De Ronde so it could happen. Brennauer hasn't been in as good form as she was all through last year but she's also suited to Flanders and has a finishing speed that rivals the best. A curiosity is that Trixi Worrack was on the podium of the first ever women's Ronde in 2004 and she is still in with an outside chance to podium this time.
A really typical Flanders rider is Hitec's new signing Charlotte Becker. A strong rouleur who doesn't really have the final weapons to win that many races but a really hard and gruesome Flanders is exactly the kind of day she can win if all goes right.
Pick to Win:
It's hard to look past Lizzie Armitstead in the end. Without Vos and with Emma Johansson not 100% Lizzie is quite clearly a level above the competition and the other strong teams will have their work cut out for them. Having seen Van der Breggen and PFP in Binda last week it looks a good bet that those two might end up doing battle with Armitstead again in the finale here. PFP is just getting back into swing and she already piled on the pressure with a few attacks and if she is as active on Sunday it may pay off better. The cobbles almost always favor the aggressive riders who take on the races and that is how the World Champ races, buoyed by the confidence gained last season. The fourth big in the front at Binda was Wiggle-Honda's Elisa Longo Borghini and she could very well be in the mix again on Sunday but for whatever reason she has never had the luck with her in the cobbled classics. It's not that they're too tough for her, her Binda win two years ago was under conditions every bit as tough as we'll ever see in Flanders. It's just that things have never seemed to work out. The day it does she will win one of these for sure.