One week after the Trofeo Alfredo Binda kicked off the 2011 UCI Women's World Cup, the women's peloton heads to Belgium on Sunday for the Ronde van Vlaanderen Vrouwen, the Women's Tour of Flanders, for the series' second of nine rounds.
The winners of the previous four Rondes will be on hand in Oudenaarde, led by defending champion Grace Verbeke (Topsport Vlaanderen 2012-Ridley Team), the first Belgian to prevail in the event's seven editions. The victory was the biggest of Verbeke's career as she soloed to victory three seconds up on a select eight-rider chase group. Verbeke attacked with 45km remaining and was joined by Adrie Visser, who she later dropped on the Bosberg with 12km to go.
Joining the 26-year-old Belgian on the start line are two heavy hitters from HTC-Highroad, Ina Teutenberg and Judith Arndt, the 2009 and 2008 champions respectively, as well as 2007 winner Nicole Cooke (SC MCipollini Giordana).
Emma Pooley (Garmin-Cervélo) won last Sunday's opening round in dominating fashion and will start in defence of her World Cup leader's jersey, but she doesn't expect to be a factor on the cobbled parcours.
"For us for as a team it's fantastic to have the leader's jersey in the World Cup. especially as we're still learning how to work together as we've changed a bit since last year," said Pooley.
"But if I'm going to be totally honest I don't think I can hold on to the jersey. To put it mildly I'm not the best sprinter in the world and realistically I don't have a chance in the sprinters' races. It would be a shame to leave the jersey at home. We want to try and win Flanders but I'm not the person for that. But perhaps I can work for someone else."
Someone who is uniquely talented and versatile enough to prevail on any terrain is Marianne Vos (Nederland Bloeit), a former road world champion who's a reigning world champion in both cyclo-cross and very recently on the track in the scratch event, won this past Saturday on home soil in the Netherlands. Vos finished runner-up at the women's Ronde in 2010 and is surely a strong contender to add a first Tour of Flanders victory to her ample palmares.
Fellow Dutchwoman Kirsten Wild (AA Drink - Leontien.nl Cycling Team), also at home on both road and track, where she recently earned a bronze medal in the omnium at the world championships, has finished on the Ronde podium in both 2010 (3rd) and 2009 (2nd) and this year may be the time to complete her podium triumvirate with a victory.
Swedish champion Emma Johansson (Hitec Products UCK) finished second in the opening round of the World Cup in Italy last weekend and is well acquainted with the Tour of Flanders terrain, having finished fourth in 2010 and third in 2009.
Other riders to watch include Italy's Noemi Cantele (Garmin-Cervélo), the 2009 time trial world champion and 7th place finisher at last year's Ronde, Chantal Blaak (AA Drink - Leontien.nl Cycling Team), current world champion Giorgia Bronzini (Colavita Forno d'Asolo) and Martine Bras (Dolmans Landscaping Team).
Twenty-seven teams, each with six women on their roster, will do battle on the cobbles and hellingen of Flanders on a parcours 129.9km in length. The women race the same day as the men and will face a harder parcours than last year as they take in 12 of the same climbs as the men's peloton, three more than the previous edition.
While the men start in Bruges on their lengthier 256km trek, the women start in the heart of hellingen country in Oudenaarde, the home of the Tour of Flanders museum.
The first climb the women's peloton tackles will be the Rekelberg after 30km of racing, followed 18km later by the Oude-Kwaremont. The women will then face the Korteker before arriving at the Steenbeekdries at km 59. For the remaining 71km the women race the same finishing sequence of climbs as the men as they tackle the Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Molenberg, Leberg, Valkenberg, Tenbosse, Muur-Kapelmuur and Bosberg before arriving in Ninove.
With the weather expected to be both chilly and wet on Sunday the conditions should be right to add another worthy victor to the annals of women's Ronde champions.