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Poor man’s preview: Ronde for vrouwen

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Sunday is the highpoint of the year on the cycling calendar and with the arrival of TV coverage in the last few years the Ronde van Vlaanderen is now deservedly a highpoint on the women’s calendar too. It surely was long before that to the riders but for fans at home it has been hard to relate to a race that they’ve seen almost nothing of. We’ve heard of decisive moves on the Kruisberg and on the Oude Kwaremont but usually we’ve had to rely on brief and incomplete highlights to see for ourselves. Luckily those dark days are behind us and we can look forward to actually seeing one of the most open and uncertain Rondes in a long time on Sunday.

I say open and uncertain based on two things really. Firstly the course has been tweaked a little in an interesting way and secondly, the race is without one huge favorite this year and it’s a very unpredictable affair. That said, the whole point of this post is to do a little predicting which now that I actually think about it was not.....very clever of me. Therefore let’s start with the course and why it’s different.

The Course

The women’s course has changed along with the men’s in the last decade but not quite as much. When the finish moved to Oudenaarde the women’s course settled on one basic variant that ended with a pass over the Kwaremont/Paterberg combo before heading into Oudenaarde, just as the men. While the men’s “laps” were fiddled with, the women stayed roughly the same basically with Kanarieberg and Kruisberg/Hotond in Ronse making the main challenges before Kwaremont. When the Muur van Geraardsbergen was reintroduced that finale remained intact and in reality the race was not significantly altered even though the Muur probably made a bit more of a selection than the previous course did. This year though a familiar friend is making its debut on the women’s route, the mysteriously mighty Taaienberg.

So a few things happened. First, it’s longer, now 159 km compared to 151 last year. The Muur came with 60 kms to go last year and now it’s 74 km to go. That means the finale is a little more stretched out. Then the change made is that Pottelberg/La Houppe, which was the first climb in the real finale at 40 kms to go, is out and instead the first one is Kanarieberg with about 45 kms to go. After that they hit the Taaienberg and then wind along the small roads past the Steenbeekdries toward Ronse and the Kruisberg. So they’ve swapped one longer steadier paved climb in favor of the cobbled Taaienberg. Not a huge change in theory but we see the often pivotal effect Taaienberg has in the mens races and it could be even more so here. I’d also argue that adding more cobbles and narrow winding roads in the finale is in keeping with the spirit of this race (as lovely as La Houppe is). The inclusion of the Muur meant we lost the cobbled Molenberg which was always a race maker on the old course, I think this could add lots of dimensions to the finale here. It’s hard not to think that significant action will happen on the “Boonenberg”, making for an interesting run into Ronse. It was always my feeling before (without always having seen it so.....) that the big riders essentially waited for the Kruisberg and the grind up the Hotond to really open the race. Maybe not so now?

The Favorites

Ah, the riders. Why does it always have to get complicated? Even with a smaller elite group among the women, these types of rundowns always tend to become endless long lists of names because genuinely there are so many who could theoretically win and you don’t want to get caught out not having mentioned one of them because....awkward. I’ll try and avoid that trap and keep it brief this time and sort them in basic order based on teams. And it has to be said that while in the case of some women races the true list of contenders is maybe 1, 2 or maybe max 3 riders long if you’re really honest, that is really not the case this year.

Mitchelton-Scott
OK, let’s be really really honest, maybe the real list of favorites IS only one rider long this year? In the absence of last year’s dominant winner Anna van der Breggen, Annemiek van Vleuten looks in prime position. Dwars confirmed her form is still there and we saw in Tuscany that when the course is tough enough there really aren’t any riders who can match her. She was third last year, she’s won the Ronde before in 2011 and she has a brilliant team. Hard to overlook these facts. Should she not have the day then Elvin and Spratt make for winning threats on their own. Mitchelton look as scary as Australian fauna in general. If the croc doesn’t kill you the shark or the spider might, and they’ve got dingoes like Tennigloo and Roy to help them.

Trek Segafredo
By virtue of their showing on Wednesday Trek look the best team coming into Flanders. Ellen van Dijk is as menacing as ever and Elisa Longo Borghini looks to be returning to her full power after a setback with illness before Strade Bianche. Really, individual riders have looked better this spring but as a team it’s hard to overlook Trek right now. Lepistö doesn’t look like she could stick around but really I struggle to see a larger group sprint anyway on this course. It would take some very weird team tactic dimensions (like in 2017) and even then I doubt it.

Longo Borghini and Niewiadoma forcing a selection
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Boels Dolmans
Why aren’t Boels topping this list? Or all lists? What’s wrong with the world? Well, for starters Anna van der Breggen isn’t here (as I’m writing this), she seems a bit of a box-ticker and with this box ticked last year she’s out looking for other boxes. Boxes outside the FSA DS. How’s that for thinking outside the box? So without superstar Anna the near-superstars haven’t been on fire lately. After their flying start in Omloop and Le Samyn they’ve been a little less dominant than usual, maybe timing their peak for the big ones to come next here and in the Ardennes? Chantal Blaak and Amy Pieters are both obvious winning candidates if they do return to normal, both good enough to stick with pretty much any attack and fast on the line. Maybe I wouldn’t bet on them atm but more importantly there is no way in hell I’d be dumb enough to bet against them.

Virtu
This is the revelation of the season. Yes Marta Bastianelli has the most red-hot form of anyone this spring but she’s also revealed to have seriously solid backing from Bertizzolo, Siggard (Omloop winner 2018) Koster and Guarischi. Wevelgem showed that Bastianelli can cope with just about everything a flemish course can throw at her so unless this is an aggressively attacking race on the climbs she is very likely to be in the mix at the end.

Canyon-Sram
There was a time when Kasia Niewiadoma was destined to rule the world and while that hasn’t really panned out (yet?) she has been looking aggressive in the last few races and on Sunday she will get a course where that might get a better payoff as well. So far she’s been furiously attacking but not getting away from the other bigs. With the likes of Cecchini and Ryan to aid her and pose parallell threats this could be a good day for Canyon/Sram.

CCC-LIV
Did you write off Marianne Vos? Did you? If so you’re feeling a bit silly now aren’t you? Me I don’t mind feeling a bit silly so I’m going to sort of write Vos off for this one and say Moolman has the better chance (for a podium, if not win). Flanders was never Vos’s prime stomping grounds, even in her best years for whatever reason so I think they will work primarily for Moolman here. I’d love to see her get that first big win, I just won’t quite believe it until I see it is all. Top 5 absolutely, win? History tells us it’s unlikely.

WNT Rotor
We’ve just seen Wild outperform expectations and now it may be Lisa Brennauer’s turn to fully return to the big stage. Wild has no chance on this course so look for her to be repaying favors in a big way here. Has Brennauer got what it takes to win? I wouldn’t bet on it but her form is brilliant (that return to the front after a flat in the final 10 kms of G-W was a bit of magic you rarely see) and if things get a bit tactical she might be just the kind of rider to slip away and take advantage,

Sunweb
This is the most loveable bunch of “almost but not quite” riders of all the teams. They were well in it in Dwars and Lucinda Brand is another brilliant poacher who could steal the race out from the nose of others when they’re looking at eachother and trying to stare one another down. I doubt Rivera gets as lucky again as in 17 and while she is probably on the way to becoming a rider who can actually sit with the bigs here her form so far hasn’t been entirely convincing which is a shame for Sunweb.

Movistar
A Spanish team? In a cobbled classic, really? Yes, really. And all credit to Movistar who look like one of the best realized “double WT” teams of them all in spite of my initial misgivings. With Sheyla Gutierrez, their dream signing who has been slightly anonymous until just now in Dwars, they have a genuine contender. Support is solid too, this isn’t like their men’s team where 6 out of 8 are dreaming and praying to be somewhere else,. I wouldn’t pick Gutierrez to win but a top 5 or podium should come as a surprise to no one.

FDJ
FDJ tried, tried and tried again in Dwars the other day but it was too little, too late. Here they will once again be hoping that Emilia Fahlin will continue her good run and prove competitive in a race she’s never done as a leader before. It’s a stretch but as a completely and utterly unbiased observer I say she can do it and get a top 10. Go Sweden! eeeehhh France!

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Definitive prediction:

Annemiek van Vleuten escapes for good somewhere around Hotond or Kwaremont and in the small group sprint behind Amy Pieters just barely outsprints Lisa Brennauer and Elisa Longo Borghini after Ellen van Dijk’s late charge is pulled back. You heard it here first.