The Ardennes Classics are over for another year with Liège-Bastogne-Liège Femmes, delivering an unusually tight battle for victory with the unprecedented sprint leaving Demi Vollering (SD Worx) to take the biggest win of her career.
The 2019 winner, Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), couldn’t get away during the 140.9 kilometre race and ended up settling for second in the sprint while third place for Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) was enough to put her into the lead of the Women’s WorldTour.
Cyclingnews takes a look at five of the biggest takeaways from this year's Liège-Bastogne-Liège Femmes.
The heir apparent
If there were any doubts before the Ardennes, it now seems clear that Dutch rider Demi Vollering is the heir apparent at SD Worx. There was never any question over the 24-year-old’s potential – not with the record of the last two years at Parkhotel Valkenburg – or her ability on a climb and in a sprint but it is no easy task to stand out in a team as packed with options as SD Worx.
By the time the Ardennes arrived Vollering had started to lift from an already impressively strong start to the year, with sixth at Strade Bianche and fifth at Tour of Flanders, taking things to a whole new level by Brabantse Pijl where, but for an early celebration, she may have been stepping up to the top step of the podium.
At Amstel Gold Race she proved it wasn’t a one-off, taking second and almost catching out the fast finishing Marianne Vos (Jumbo Visma) with the speed of her acceleration. Then she displayed tactical nous at Flèche Wallonne playing a pivotal role in Anna van der Breggen’s seventh victory at the race by deciding to close down the gap to a charging Ruth Winder (Trek-Segafredo) and, despite the work she put in, holding on for tenth.
Heading into Liège-Bastogne-Liège the final question that remained was could she actually deliver that big win, shouldering the pressure of a powerful effort by so many teammates, including the rainbow-stripe clad van der Breggen, who has twice won at Liège?
Obviously, that's now also a clear yes.
The ultimate super domestique
It’s not unheard of to have a rider wearing the rainbow stripes pitching in to help another member of their team take a shot at a victory, but Van der Breggen has repeatedly put in stellar efforts for her teammates in races where she clearly has the form and history to fight for the win. Liège-Bastogne-Liège was a perfect demonstration of this, with Van der Breggen taking the role of super domestique to a whole new level.
Closing down moves by Vos and van Vleuten, then riding with such power on the front that there was no chance of the fast finishing 12-time world champion holding firm to the lead group on those final climbs or catching back up after. After eliminating Vollering’s fiercest sprint competition she kept the pace high, making it hard for the remaining riders, van Vleuten, Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) to attack into the headwind. Finally she could be seen whole-heartedly celebrating the win of her young teammate, throwing her arms up in the air as she would for her own victory as she came across the line, barely distanced in the sprint even after the huge amount of work and finishing fifth.
The 31 year-old rider, who is retiring at the end of the year, is also bound to be able to keep helping Vollering deliver victories beyond this year, no doubt having build a bond and understanding in the spring races that will serve the pair well when she retire next year and moves into a role as sports director at the team.
Blowing a pattern
Just when we had got to used to seeing a string of solo winners at Liège-Bastogne-Liège Femmes it came down to a small group sprint for the fifth edition of the race.
So what changed?
For one Van der Breggen wasn’t hankering to go solo, like she did in 2017 and 2018, but was instead using her formidable strength to keep the race together because she was working toward the best scenario for the fast finishing Vollering. However, it was more than that.
A headwind spoiled the plans of a number of riders, the power of nature joining forces with the power of Van der Breggen to thwart the attacks.
“I kept clear in mind that I wanted to try that one big attack... yet there was such a strong headwind at La Redoute, and so you couldn’t open a gap without the others following you,” said Van Vleuten.
“If there was an attack, I had to be there, but I wanted to be the first to go on the move. In the end, I tried it after the Roche-aux-Faucons, but it came back together, and with Van der Breggen pulling we knew it was going to be a sprint finish.”
Van Vleuten, who won solo with a 1:39 gap in 2019, had to make the best of the small group finish, launching the sprint first and holding on to take second behind Vollering.
Brand is back
Not that it has been a bad year for Lucinda Brand, she is after all the cyclo-cross world champion, but it is a while since we have been her firing on the road.
An injury soon after the season restart last year, then a couple of bouts of illness left her with a sparse and unimpressive road season in 2020. At the start of 2021, while still building after a break following the cyclo-cross season, Brand was well back in the field at races where she had done well before, like Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Come April and that started to turn around and then when she went off in the break at Liège she looked once again like the force to be reckoned we had been used to seeing before 2020.
Brand was out the front at 35 kilometres to go on Sunday, bridging to a break of Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (SD Worx) and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope), and looking comfortable on the climbs and as if she were every bit a match for the duo. Then when the break was caught she didn’t trail off but remained active at the front, though was ultimately dropped when the lead group formed on the climb with about 14 kilometres to go. Still, even then, she didn’t fall away completely, winning the sprint from a group of 13 that came into the line together and as a result taking ninth place.
Brand has started delivering results on the road we haven't seen since she joined Trek-Segafredo. What we have already witnessed is what a formidable duo Deignan – who wasn’t racing due to illness – and Longo Borghini can be at Trek-Segafredo, now its time to see just how much further they can take it when an in form Brand is added into the mix.
Spratt's Ardennes luck
Back in 2018 at the Ardennes, Spratt blossomed. Riding with confidence, form and looking like she was taking the first steps to morphing from an outside chance to a rolled gold contender. The Australian rider started with third at Amstel Gold, moved onto fifth at La Flèche Wallonne and then took second at Liège after her tilt at victory with a solo attack was thwarted by Van der Breggen.
Then after such a successful 2018, it was back into the shadows at the trio of races in 2019, with then teammate Van Vleuten holding sway at all three races. The Dutch rider finished on the top two steps of the podium at every single race while the supportive teammate Spratt took eleventh spot across all three. Onto 2020 and the Ardennes Classics, along with the World Championships, were a key goal for Spratt but a crash at the Giro Rosa left her out of both.
This year, though, Spratt again had her chance, gearing her early season toward the races that she had done so well at in 2018. Things started reasonable well, with Spratt just off the podium with a fourth at Amstel Gold in a reduced bunch sprint. Onto Flèche Wallonne and it was a few steps backward, with ninth, as the Australian rider not having the legs required on the climb to the finish at the Mur de Huy.
However, her best chance was still yet to come as the 33-year-old was going into Liège with sole leadership – Brown who had come second last year was taking a season break after a heavy schedule – and the confidence that came from knowing that the terrain made it the race that suited her best.
Then she became unwell.
“I was a bit sick overnight and during the race I had stomach problems,” said Spratt, who still managed to take 10th regardless.
To make things worse, key teammate Lucy Kennedy, also crashed and was forced to abandon. The team said on Twitter that she was in hospital in Belgium and should make a full recovery from the injuries she sustained.
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