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10 riders to watch at the women's Tour of Flanders

Annemiek van Vleuten at the 2020 Tour of Flanders
Annemiek van Vleuten at the 2020 Tour of Flanders (Image credit: Getty Images)

Sunday brings the fourth race of the Women’s WorldTour and, as intense as the competition has been so far, things looks set to boil over at the Tour of Flanders with so many of the big names focussed on the prestigious spring Classic and hitting top form.

Marianne Vos has netted her first win for new team Jumbo-Visma at Gent-Wevelgem while  Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) just did the same at Dwars door Vlaanderen, Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) has animated race after race and Grace Brown (Team BikeExchange) is becoming a force to be reckoned with.

There’s been no holding back all season, with the opportunities limited by the early cancellations in the race calendar, and that's only likely to intensify at this Belgian race given the next race on the schedule, the first-ever women’s Paris-Roubaix, has now been postponed. We take a look at ten of the riders to watch as the 152 kilometre race over the cobbles and climbs unfolds.

Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar)

  • Age: 38
  • Best result: Winner, 2011

It had been a surprisingly quiet start to the year for the Dutch rider, settling into a new team after five years at Mitchelton-Scott, and for a moment there it may have even been possible to forget what an ever-present threat she can be.

However, she changed all that with her first win of the season at Dwars doors Vlaanderen. It was a clear reminder that she’s still a powerful force, still able to ride most of the best off her wheel and hold off the closing power of the bunch. 

It’s been many years since Van Vleuten has won the Tour of Flanders, ten in fact, which takes us back to a time when she was considered a rider for the Classics and not the climbs. Yet the 38-year-old has shown every sign that she is ripe for a victory, with the recent win under her belt and what last year looked like a winning attack before Anna van der Breggen neutralised the move to repay a teammate. It was a missed opportunity for Van Vleuten that she’s likely to want to make up for this year. 

Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM)

  • Age: 26
  • Best result: Sixth, 2019

CITTIGLIO ITALY MARCH 21 Katarzyna Niewiadoma of Poland and Team Canyon SRAM Racing Soraya Paladin of Italy and Team Liv Racing during the 45th Trofeo Alfredo BindaComune di Cittiglio 2021 Womens Elite a 1418km stage from Cocquio Trevisago to Cittiglio 257m Breakaway TrBinda UCIWWT on March 21 2021 in Cittiglio Italy Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

Niewiadoma at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

There was only one rider that could go with the Van Vleuten at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday and that was Kasia Niewiadoma, who was beaten in the two-way sprint. The 26 year old, who always seems to be knocking on the door of a win, was also strong at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, finishing in the lead chase group of five behind solo winner Elisa Longo Borghini. 

Niewiadoma has been in the top ten in the last five editions of the race she has lined up for and while that consistency is a good indicator of her strength it is also potentially an indicator that she’s been playing it safe rather than taking a risk to chase victory.

Not falling into the mindset of defending rather than chasing the win is a lesson Niewiadoma said she learned at Dwars doors Vlaanderen so if an opportunity arises at Tour of Flanders to take a chance for the win, expect her to take it. 

Chantal van den Broek-Blaak (SD Worx)

  • Age: 31
  • Best result: Winner, 2020

Chantal Van Den Broek - Blaak on the Strade Bianc the podium

Van Den Broek-Blaak already has Strade Bianche under her belt in 2021 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Van den Broek-Blaak is last year’s winner at the race and this year’s first Women’s WorldTour victor after beating Elisa Longo Borghini in her own backyard and delivering a win that seemed to surprise her as much as anyone else at Strade Bianche. The SD Worx rider attacked solo last year with just a little less than 20 kilometres to go and pushed on to the line as her strong team disrupted the chase behind. 

Again the Dutch-based team is packed with power, which both gives the defending champion a strong chance if she is the rider the team backs, but with just about any of her teammates having serious potential to win she could just as easily end up throwing her efforts behind one of them. That’s the way it goes when your team has started the year of racing with six victories from six different riders. 

Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx)

  • Age: 30
  • Best result: Winner, 2018

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Women 2021

Van der Breggen won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad back in February (Image credit: Getty Images)

Talking about teammates with serious winning potential, there is no rider that comes more quickly to mind than double world champion Anna van der Breggen. We haven’t seen her line up much so far this year, but the first time she did at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad she won and the second, at Strade Bianche, she stood on the third step of the podium while Van den Broek-Blaak took the top step.

Last year at the race, she completely had Van Vleuten’s measure and looked like she could have ridden off and comfortably taken second at worst if she had wanted. 

The 2018 winner will be hard to beat if the team rallies around her at this, her final outing at Flanders. However, with riders like last year’s defending champion and second-placed rider, Amy Pieters, onboard there’s always plenty of options depending on how the race plays out. Plus just maybe they’ll try to make it seven victories from seven riders and send Demi Vollering out on the hunt instead. 

Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma)

  • Age: 33
  • Best result: Winner, 2013

WEVELGEM BELGIUM MARCH 28 Arrival Marianne Vos of Netherlands and Team Jumbo Visma Celebration Lisa Brennauer of Germany and Ceratizit WNT Pro Cycling Team Lotte Kopecky of Belgium and Team Liv Racing during the 10th GentWevelgem In Flanders Fields 2021 Womens Elite a 1417km race from Ypres to Wevelgem GWE21 GWEWomen FlandersClassic UCIWWT on March 28 2021 in Wevelgem Belgium Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images

Vos celebrates her Gent-Wevelgem victory (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

At times there is a certain patch Marianne Vos hits where she seems nearly unbeatable, with an explosive turn of speed that catches her rivals off guard and that uncanny knack of always being in the right place at the right time. She found it in the second half of the year in 2019, and with the start of the season she’s had, it looks like she could be on her way to rediscovering it again. 

The Dutch rider started the season with seventh at Strade Bianche, then third at GP Oetingen, second at Trofeo Alfredo Binda and just last weekend stepped up to the top step at Gent-Wevelgem, where she took out the group sprint ahead of Liv Racing’s Lotte Kopecky. The versatile rider can get into a break or take victory in a group sprint, which gives her a good chance no matter which path the race takes this year.

The race too is a major goal for the 12-time world champion this year, who hasn’t in recent years had the same early season form that she’s currently displaying. Vos did win in 2013 after beating Ellen van Dijk, Emma Johansson, and Elisa Longo Borghini in a breakaway sprint but hasn’t been on the podium since in the years that she has lined up at the race, which hasn’t been all that often. 

Cecilie Uttrup-Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope)

  • Age: 25
  • Best result: Third, 2019

Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope)

Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig wins at the 2020 Giro dell'Emilia (Image credit: Getty Images)

The Danish rider is another, like Niewiadoma, who keeps knocking on the door of a win, only to find that there is no answer, so far at least.

She was on the podium at Trofeo Alfredo Binda this year and fifth at Strade Bianche and in recent years has racked up podium position at races such as La Flèche Wallonne and La Course, as well as stages at the Giro Rosa. What she hasn’t done though, is stepped up to the top step at a Women’s WorldTour race. 

The Danish all-rounder says that she intends to race on instinct, being prepared to take a risk and lose in order to try and secure that big win. A solid FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope behind her will help her in that target, with Marta Cavalli, who was in the top 10 at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Strade Bianche, and Emilia Fahlin, who was in the top 10 at Trofeo Alfredo Binda and Gent-Wevelgem. 

Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo)

  • Age: 29
  • Best result: Winner, 2015

CITTIGLIO ITALY MARCH 21 Arrival Elisa Longo Borghini of Italy and Team Trek Segafredo Celebration during the 45th Trofeo Alfredo BindaComune di Cittiglio 2021 Womens Elite a 1418km stage from Cocquio Trevisago to Cittiglio 257m TrBinda UCIWWT on March 21 2021 in Cittiglio Italy Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

Longo Borghini won the Trofeo Binda in March (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Look at the results history at the race and Lizzie Deignan and Ellen van Dijk are also likely contenders for the team, but with the start to the season Longo Borghini has had, it’d be foolish not to consider her a promising prospect.

Only three Women’s WorldTour events into the 2021 season and she already has one victory at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, a second place at Strade Bianche and a 33rd at Gent-Wevelgem that doesn’t really tell the story of just how close she came to pulling off another win. 

The 29 year old comes into the race knowing she can win, having pulled off a solo victory, as she is inclined to do, in 2015. Plus with the strength of a team boasting former winners Deignan (2016) and Ellen van Dijk (2014) she’s surrounded by riders who know what it takes to capture the victory, and can either provide excellent support or additional cards to play.  

Grace Brown (Team BikeExchange)

  • Age: 28
  • Best result: 14th, 2020

DE PANNE BELGIUM MARCH 25 Arrival Grace Brown of Australia and Team BikeExchange Celebration during the 4th Oxyclean Brugge De Panne 2021 Women Classic a 1588km race from Brugge to De Panne OxycleanClassic UCIWWT on March 25 2021 in De Panne Belgium Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Once you may have been able to call Brown an outsider, but not any more. The Australian’s performances after the season restart in 2020 put on show just what potential she had to step up into a regular leadership role.

Now, there is no longer any room for doubt after she netted her first Women’s WorldTour win at Brugge-De Panne last month. What’s more her consistency has been impressive with the 28-year-old only falling out of the top ten once so far this season.

Plus she has a strong team on her side, with Australian champion Sarah Roy a handy ally and option for the team if the race comes down to a sprint from a substantial group of riders, the likes of which we haven’t seen since 2017 when Coryn Rivera won. Also working in her favour is the late addition of Amanda Spratt to the team, providing an experienced road captain. 

Marta Bastianelli (Alé BTC Ljubljana)

  • Age: 33
  • Best result: Winner, 2019

CITTIGLIO ITALY MARCH 21 Marta Bastianelli of Italy and Team Ale Btc Ljubljana during the 45th Trofeo Alfredo BindaComune di Cittiglio 2021 Womens Elite a 1418km stage from Cocquio Trevisago to Cittiglio 257m TrBinda UCIWWT on March 21 2021 in Cittiglio Italy Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

Bastianelli in action at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The winner of the race when it was last contested in the spring, Bastianelli isn’t displaying the same form she was in 2019, but is showing the signs that it's possible she’s working toward it.

She came sixth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, ninth at Nokere Koerse, and fifth at Gent-Wevelgem this spring. The Italian rider won solo in 2019, but her strength is she could also take it if it came down to a sprint. 

What’s more the Italian one-day specialist and her team is hungry for a win in 2021, and she’s hoping that with some good luck and strength she’ll be able to step closer to that at Ronde van Vlaanderen. 

Lotto Kopecky (Liv Racing)

  • Age: 25
  • Best result: Third, 2020

DOUR BELGIUM MARCH 02 Sprint Arrival Lotte Kopecky of Belgium and Team Liv Racing Celebration during the 10th Le Samyn des Dames 2021 Womens Elite a 925km race from Quaregnon to Dour GPSamyn on March 02 2021 in Dour Belgium Photo by Mark Van HeckeGetty Images

Kopecky celebrates her Le Samyn victory last month (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

At Gent-Wevelgem the double Belgian champion came second, for a second year in a row. There was disappointment that she couldn’t take the top step but it’s a good indicator of her form that she took second. It’s a race of attrition that suits Kopecky, fast but not a pure sprinter and able to push through with a break.

Kopecky came third at the 2020 Tour of Flanders coming second in the sprint from a bunch of 15 that came in behind Van den Broek-Blaak.

She’s regularly been near the front too this season, apart from Gent-Wevelgem, with the 25-year-old rider taking fourth places at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Nokere Koerse, and the Classic Brugge-De Panne, plus a victory at Le Samyn.