After a lengthy wait, the Women's WorldTour continues in earnest with the second round at the Ronde van Drenthe. It is also a continuation of the cobbled Classics, which began with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad at the end of February, as the riders build up to the Tour of Flanders at the beginning of April.
The WorldTour leader's jersey will be in play with Strade Bianche winner and first series leader Elisa Longo Borghini missing from the line-up, as she is racing the inaugural Semana Ciclista Valenciana instead. The other two Strade Bianche podium finishers will be absent Saturday as well.
The Ronde van Drenthe has only been part of the women's calendar since 2007 when it was brought in – along with Acht van Westerveld – as a sister event to the Damesronde van Drenthe, but it has become a staple of the spring programme. It is often dubbed a sprinter's race, but it rarely ends in a bunch gallop.
With a mixture of cobbles and climbs, anything can happen and last year's edition produced some dramatic racing with an elite group going away on the final section of cobbles. Chantal Blaak brought her superb form into the race and beat her three break companions to take the race win.
Back to Blaak
Unlike this time last year, Blaak hasn't yet nailed down her first win of the season, but her second place at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad shows that she has good form coming into the race. She will have a strong Boels Dolmans team behind her – it's difficult to imagine Boels Dolmans fielding anything less – with Anna van der Breggen, Amy Pieters, Megan Guarnier and world champion Amalie Dideriksen all lining up. Any one of the team could feasibly challenge for the win. Pieters and Van der Breggen have both finished on the podium previously, in 2015 and 2014 respectively. Van der Breggen has had a delayed start to her road season after falling ill last month, but Pieters has been going strong and finished second at Le Samyn last week.
Three-time champion Marianne Vos will be back after a four-year absence to lead the WM3 team. Vos enjoyed a run of three victories between 2011 and 2013 but has not been back to the race since. Vos began her road campaign with 17th at Strade Bianche last weekend and will be keen to be at the pointy end of proceedings this time out. Lauren Kitchen and Anouska Koster will be out for WM3 too.
Vos' former Radio-Liv teammate Lucinda Brand has been going great guns thus far in 2017. Now riding for Team Sunweb, the Dutchwoman has more freedom to make her own race and she won her first outing at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with a solo attack. She tried the same tact at Strade Bianche but couldn't quite pull it off. She held on for fourth place, making her the highest ranked rider in the WorldTour to be racing at Ronde van Drenthe and a near shoe-in for the jersey if she can muster a respectable showing. Two-time podium finisher Ellen van Dijk has been consistently in the top 10 this season and gives Team Sunweb another option.
Wiggle-High5 will be looking to make it two for two in the WorldTour with Jolien D'hoore. The Belgian is back racing on the road full time, after targeting the track at the Olympics last season, and she's already scored her first win at Spar-Omloop van het Hageland-Tielt-Winge. Wiggle-High5 had a disastrous race in 2016, missing out on the key move and then struggling to mount a coherent chase. The team appears to the working much better together so far this season, however.
Chloe Hosking was part of that Wiggle-High5 team up last season but this year sees her in the fluoro-yellow of Alé Cipollini. She had a great start at the Santos Women's Tour and managed second behind D'hoore in Hageland. Cylance's Kirsten Wild is also another potential contender if the peloton comes to the line in something that resembles a bunch.
Pushing the limits
Over the winter, the UCI announced that WorldTour races would now have an upper limit of 160km and the Ronde van Drenthe organisers are utilising the new freedom. This year's route will be 14km longer than last year's offering, at 152km.
The route will include seven pavé sectors in quick succession, which total 13.2km of the race's length. The last of them comes around 60 kilometres from the finish. Sandwiching the cobbled sectors are three ascents of the VAM-berg. The man-made climb was built over the top of an old waste site, and while it's only 44 metres high, it includes gradients of up to 21 per cent. The first trip up comes at the riders quickly, just 10 kilometres into the day. After the seven cobbled sectors come the next two ascents in quick succession.
Just over 30 kilometres will remain for the peloton after the final ascent of the VAM-berg. The riders will hit Hoogeveen again, where they started the day, with just under 20 kilometres to go, before completing 1.5 laps of a 7.9km local circuit. In theory, it is an opportunity to bring back an attack, but history has told us that this is a much more difficult task than one may think.