Two out of three ain’t bad. Ellen van Dijk (Boels-Dolmans) has raced into Madinat Al Shamal three times over the years at the Ladies Tour of Qatar, and she brought her tally of wins in the northern town to two with a well-timed attack 1500 metres from the finish of Thursday’s stage
In 2013, Van Dijk had to settle for second place in behind Kirsten Wild, unable to match her fellow countrywoman’s rapid finish. With Wild safely ensconced in the select leading group again here, Van Dijk had little option but to pre-empt the sprint.
A year ago, of course, Van Dijk did just that, opening her effort from almost 500 metres out to claim the stage honours. This time around, she went earlier again, jumping away from the 11-strong leading group with a little under a kilometre and a half remaining, and staying clear to win by 7 seconds. Wild, inevitably, won the sprint for second.
“I felt strong yesterday also, and the day before, but it’s hard to take advantage of it when you’re not really a sprinter,” Van Dijk told reporters after the finish. “But I knew that today was probably my best chance because tomorrow is normally not such a tough circuit. I really wanted to play out there today and go full gas, but I also had to play it smart and wait for the right moment.”
Van Dijk was out in front for 111 of the day’s 112 kilometres. The peloton swung straight into a long crosswind section immediately after the start, and almost instantly, the strongest women in the race came to the fore, and the bunch was shredded into echelons. “The first kilometre was one big fight,” Van Dijk said.
If the opening kilometres were a battle of attrition that saw the elite leading group gain almost two minutes over gold jersey Katrin Garfoot (Orica-AIS), the warfare was increasingly tactical as the day wore on.
With Garfoot’s teammate Gracie Elvin sitting on, and with the faster finishers such as Shelley Olds (Cylance) and Kirsten Wild (Hitec) bereft of teammates and reluctant to contribute too much, it was left to the Boels-Dolmans and Canyon-SRAM, who had three riders apiece in the 12-woman move, to take up the baton.
“We had the sprinters sitting on, and of course we had Gracie Elvin sitting on. So it’s a tough job to try to make them work and make everyone do their part of the work, but that’s always the case,” said Van Dijk.
“But there were three from Canyon and three from Boels, and we knew we also had to keep going because Romy [Kasper] was close on GC and Wiggle had missed the move too.”
In the end, Kasper would move up to second overall behind the new race leader Trixi Worrack (Canyon-Sram), while Majerus would play a key role in laying the groundwork for Van Dijk’s winning move in the finale.
Van Dijk herself is now in third place overall, 31 seconds off Worrack, and though a repeat of her 2011 overall victory in Qatar is surely beyond her with just the final criterium to come, she will hope that Thursday’s win is an augury for what is to come in 2016.
The Rio Olympic Games time trial, of course, is the centrepiece of Van Dijk’s season, though after travelling to reconnoitre the course as part of a Dutch Federation delegation last year, the 2013 world time trial champion is well aware that the hilly parcours is ideally-suited to her characteristics.
“I’ve been there with the national team and it’s super tough. That doesn’t play in my favour so that’s a bummer,” she said. “But I’m going to go more than 100 percent for it, I’ll give it everything I have and see how far I can go.”
And while all roads in 2016 lead to Rio, Van Dijk has no shortage of appointments in the early part of the season, not least at the Spring Classics, where she will bid to add to her Tour of Flanders triumph of two years ago.
“Of course the Olympics are the main goal but I still need to qualify so I need to be in good shape in the Spring Classics and everything else, so it doesn’t make such a big difference to my season in that way,” she said. “I still need to be good in the beginning of the year and show myself. That’s the first goal.”