How do you solve a problem like Marianne Vos? The women’s peloton has had to grapple with that particular conundrum over the past eight seasons and Tiffany Cromwell (Specialized-Lululemon) will be among those hoping to come up with an answer at the Tour of Flanders this spring.
Buoyed by a breakthrough victory in freezing conditions at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last season, Cromwell has made De Ronde her principal target for the early part of the 2014 campaign, but she is keenly aware that the road to victory in Oudenaarde runs through the redoubtable Vos, who won the race for the first time last year.
Though mindful of the difficulties in going head to head against the Dutchwoman, winner of the past two world championships and the past two World Cups, Cromwell maintains that a team with a strong collective can reap a dividend against Vos.
"She is a very talented athlete and she’s so strong whether she has teammates around her or not, but it is about isolating her," Cromwell told Cyclingnews. "We saw a few times last year that when we had her isolated and teams just attacked and attacked, we did manage to get some changes in the results.
"With Vos, you need to try to break her by attacking in turn and then hope that she’s the one who has to chase, rather than her teammates. Isolating her and forcing her to chase is key, but it’s still a question we’re always asking – how do you beat Vos?"
Cromwell followed her manifesto the letter at the world championships in Florence last September, igniting the race by attacking every time the road went downhill in a bid to put Vos under pressure. A strong Italian team and Emma Johansson eventually followed suit, but Vos was able to repel the attacks before launching her own winning move on the final climb, thanks in no small part to the support of Anna van der Breggen – who, incidentally, joins Vos at the Rabo-Liv team in 2014.
"At the Worlds, Vos had such a strong team that she didn’t have to do a single thing until when she attacked and she won the race," said Cromwell. "That was the key to the course, and it just shows how important it is to have the strongest team around."
Cromwell has made a significant change during the off-season, of course, swapping Orica-AIS for Specialized-Lululemon. It may seem something of a paradox, but she feels that leaving the squad affiliated to the Australian federation is the best way to establish her credentials for selection for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics, having missed out on the squad for London two years ago.
Mark Renshaw, who was left out of Australian teams for the Copenhagen Worlds and London Olympics after he opted to sign for Rabobank rather than await an offer from GreenEdge in the summer of 2011, might question the wisdom of the move, but Cromwell pointed out that no two riders and their situations are the same.
"With me, I’ve been in the system from the beginning so you’re always going to have your ties there, but this gives me a chance to try different things as a bike rider and learn more about myself by working with people from different nationalities," Cromwell said. "You never know: if you stay with the same, you might not improve, whereas if you go with something different, you might learn more things about yourself.
"Obviously, the Olympics are something you always think about, but if you’re the best rider or if you’re right for the course, then they can’t really not take you, so long as you prove yourself."
Crossing the line first in Ghent’s Sint-Pietersplein at the end of last year’s Het Nieuwsblad was certainly a significant landmark in Cromwell’s personal progression, and she approaches this spring with a greater degree of confidence. This week at the Ladies Tour of Qatar, meanwhile, she is continuing to hone the skills needed to triumph on the cobbles, and thus far has been present and correct in each of the race’s decisive splits.
"I’ve always tended to struggle in these conditions but over the past couple of years I’ve managed to get stronger and I’ve learnt how to ride in the wind," she said. "You have to be thinking all the time, because if you’re in the wrong place coming around a certain corner, you can lose the race. And it’s the same in the classics: if you’re in the wrong position coming into one sector, there’s your race over."
With the cobbles and the tumult of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg just two short months away, every lesson counts between now and De Ronde.