Gent-Wevelgem proved to be a final tune-up and a good indication of how riders and teams are faring deep into the women's Spring Classics campaigns. Marianne Vos stole the show and gave the new women's team Jumbo-Visma their first-ever victory while the smaller teams showed their strengths against the best on the Women's WorldTour.
Cyclingnews looks at five of the biggest takeaways from the 2021 Gent-Wevelgem.
Jumbo-Visma a world-class operation
Jumbo-Visma's creation of a first-ever women's team was the most talked-about news coming into this season. As a first-year team, they did not meet the requirements to secure a top-tier licence, but with Marianne Vos at the helm, that seemed a minor detail. As anticipated, Vos has lifted the team to their fullest potential by securing their first-ever victory at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday and taking the Women's WorldTour lead from Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) in the process.
What's more impressive is that the team, made up of younger and up-and-coming talents, raced with tactical expertise and strength, which made Vos' win an entire team celebration. Their performance speaks to the level of organisation and leadership within the programme as much as it speaks to Vos' ability to motivate and guide a new team out on the road.
Vos kept herself in a good position during the 142km race, and only once had to cover a dangerous gap that Longo Borghini and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) opened up after the Kemmelberg, in order to avoid a repeat of Trofeo Alfredo Binda. It was on the flat run-in to the final that Jumbo-Visma showed they were still were very much a part of the race, as 22-year-old Anna Henderson launched a solo move that forced SD Worx, Canyon-SRAM and Trek-Segafredo to chase, blowing apart the larger group into smaller echelons in the process, and effectively absolving Vos of any responsibility ahead of the sprint.
Vos may have been isolated in the closing kilometres, as the field chased late-race attackers Longo Borghini and Soraya Paladin (Liv Racing), but in truth, her teammates had already done their jobs and they had taken her as far as she needed. Vos waited for the catch and then finished it off in the wind-swept sprint in Wevelgem.
Trek-Segafredo's all-or-nothing approach makes for great racing
Trek-Segafredo, once again, showed off their tactical prowess that netted them so much success last year and earned them the best overall team and the top two spots on the 2020 Women's WorldTour with Lizzie Deignan and Elisa Longo Borghini. At Gent-Wevelgem, they were the team with numbers, strength, smarts, and in the end, it was their race to lose - which they did - but it made for great racing.
They lined up with Longo Borghini, who won Trofeo Alfredo Binda on sheer strength the previous weekend, and with the addition of Deignan, Ellen van Dijk, Amalie Dideriksen, Ruth Winder and sprinter Chloe Hosking, essentially a dream team for a race like Gent-Wevelgem.
Longo Borghini blew the race to pieces over the Kemmelberg. She was followed by Niewiadoma in a dangerous but short-lived breakaway that was brought back by Vos, who wanted to avoid a similar outcome to Trofeo Alfredo Binda.
Trek-Segafredo were unrelenting in their attacks and in their tactics. They had three of their strongest riders on the flat 30km final with Longo Borghini, Deignan and Van Dijk, which meant that other teams looked to them, along with SD Worx and Canyon-SRAM, to close down attacks from the reduced front group.
Without pure sprinter in the mix, however, it was also up to them to create a winning situation for themselves, and Longo Borghini opened a gap with Paladin that nearly made it to the finish. Longo Borghini refused to give up and they were caught by a charging group inside the last 500 metres. In the end, Deignan finished 17th and Longo Borghini lost the series lead, but the team's all-or-nothing approach gave the fans a fantastic race to watch on Sunday.
Continental teams in the mix
There are only nine teams with WorldTeam status competing in the Women's WorldTour, and these teams tend to dominate women's bike racing. However, second-tier Continental teams are featuring more often in how the races unfold and in the finals of top-tier events.
The women's peloton has much more depth this year, which showed at Gent-Wevelgem with teams like TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank, Valcar-Travel & Service, Ceratizit-WNT Pro Cycling and several other Continental teams that were in contention for the win in Wevelgem - and indeed, Marianne Vos and her Continental team Jumbo-Visma took top honours.
American outfit TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank, which aims to step up to WorldTeam status in 2022, placed two riders in the top 10; Kristen Faulkner in 7th and Lauren Stephens in 10th, results that their director and former racer Rachel Hedderan is pleased to see at a WorldTour event.
"In the latter part of the race, there were some attacks that we planned on having Kristen and Lauren try and follow, or launch their own, but the race didn't work out that way, and it came together for the sprint," Hedderman said. "I'm happy with how today went. I think two top tens in a WorldTour race is very good. We're inching ever closer to the podium."
It's no surprise to see Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT), third in Wevelgem, fighting for the victory, along with her teammate Kirsten Wild, in the Spring Classics. They are world-class riders leading their team in top-level events for the past three seasons.
Valcar Travel & Services has been flying under the radar but their sprinter and one-day specialist Elisa Balsamo is close to a top-tier victory in the Classics this year. She has previously won stages at Tour of California and Challenge Madrid, and this year, she has won 1.2-level GP Oetingen, while finishing 7th at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, 5th at Brugge-De Panne and 4th at Gent-Wevelgem.
SD Worx missing the team connection
SD Worx started the season in the best possible way with six victories by six different riders - Anna van der Breggen won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Chantal van den Broek won Strade Bianche, Jolien D'hoore and Lonneke Uneken won stages at the Healthy Ageing Tour and Christine Majerus won Omloop van de Westhoek.
The more success, the higher the expectations, but the team's early-season dominance has come down a notch after they weren't fully present in races Trofeo Alfredo Binda or Gent-Wevelgem, and other teams have shown their strengths. Director Danny Stam said the team had no excuses for not being part of the race in Binda and Jack Seehafer, second director, said the team missed their connection in Wevelgem.
"We're missing the team connection today, and that one top-end rider to work for all day. Jolien was missing the legs unfortunately and Lonneke got out of the race due to a long pursuit after a bike change. It was not the best day."
D'hoore was a favourite to win Gent-Wevelgem for a second consecutive season, but in the end, she wasn't in the front split when the race ignited over the final ascents. Majerus, Elena Cecchini, Roxane Fournier and Amy Pieters featured in the final and helped chase back late-race attackers Longo Borghini and Paladin, but in the end, Pieters was their top-placed rider on the team in 11th.
"As a team, we did a good job as we did a lot of work in the final," Pieters said. "During the race, it was quite hectic, which made it a tough day. It was sad that we're missing Jolien in the end, and that I got stuck in the sprint. It was nice if we could complete these busy weeks with a good result. But it has been a good preparation for the Tour of Flanders."
The team are expected to line up at Tour of Flanders with defending champion Chantal van den Broek-Blaak and double World Champion Anna van der Breggen.
Foreshadow for Flanders
Brugge-De Panne and Gent-Wevelgem have shown a bit of what we can expect to see at the upcoming Tour of Flanders. The echelon-forming high-winds, punchy climbs and cobbles gave us an indication of how far along riders and teams are in their form ahead of the grand finale of the cobbled Classics - Tour of Flanders (April 4), and the first women's Paris-Roubaix (April 11), although the later is facing uncertainty due to COVID-19 concerns in the region of France.
Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo) and Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) have made it no secret that they are targeting Tour of Flanders, and Gent-Wevelgem was a great opportunity to test their legs against their opponents.
Vos and her Jumbo-Visma team have decided to pick their battles wisely, and they opted to skip Brugge-De Panne, to be fresher for Gent-Wevelgem. The decision paid off with the team coming together to deliver Vos to her first win of the season.
Elisa Longo Borghini already showed her fantastic form with her solo victory at Trofeo Alfredo Binda. She and Deignan skipped Brugge-De Panne, to go all-in at Gent Wevelgem. Although the team raced tactically well, they lost the race, but both Deignan and Longo Borghini showed great form just one week away from the Tour of Flanders. If the team can tie it all together, they have a real shot at winning.
Kasia Niewiadoma and Canyon-SRAM also showed their strength at Gent-Wevelgem. Niewiadoma formed part of a dangerous two-woman move over the Kemmelberg when she followed an attack by Longo Borghini. A similar move could very likely happen, and stick, at the Tour of Flanders. They missed the next move with Longo Borghini and Paladin on the flat finale, but the team still had Hannah Barnes, Elise Chabbey, and Tiffany Cromwell in the reduced field, and Niewiadoma later helped in the chase to set up Barnes for a sprint. Barnes only managed 18th, but the team and Niewiadoma show overall strength ahead of Flanders.
All the best teams and their best riders will line up at the Tour of Flanders and so Gent-Wevelgem was sort of a dress rehearsal ahead of next weekend. Working together through strong winds, battling to be on the right side of the splits, testing form on climbs, and positioning into cobble sectors at Gent-Wevelgem, gave teams a chance to make final adjustments ahead of Tour of Flanders.
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