The Opening Weekend for the women's peloton has concluded with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Elite Women on Saturday in Belgium with double world champion Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx) taking a solo victory in Ninove.
The one-day classic marked the first European race of the season for the women's field, as many of the races have been cancelled due to COVID-19, including its former counterpart Omloop van het Hageland that normally took place on Sunday.
Cyclingnews looks at some of the biggest takeaways from the 2021 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Elite Women.
Live TV makes all the difference
For a moment it was questionable whether the 1.Pro Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Elite Women was going to be offered on live broadcast, even though organisers announced they would certainly be providing live coverage for the first time this year. The How-to-Watch options seemed limited, if any.
The racing had been cancelled due to COVID-19 for the women's field and so Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was the first world-class road race we've seen live broadcast since the revised calendar last year.
"The category raise of the opening classic to UCI ProSeries is one of our goals that has been put into a concrete action," says Flanders Classics CEO Tomas Van Den Spiegel. "We are doing the same for our second goal of our 3-year Closing the Gap plan, namely more media attention. Thanks to Sporza and Proximus, the women's race will be available via livestream and the final will be broadcasted live on television for the first time, following the men's race."
Currently the only events required to offer live broadcasting of women's races are those that are part of the Women's WorldTour. So, when organisers of a 1.Pro race, or lower, put their dedication and finances toward live broadcasting without it being mandated, such efforts can be applauded by the cycling community and racers alike. We may have only seen the last 35km, but watching at least a part of how the race unfolded before Anna van der Breggen secured a solo victory was worth it.
SD Worx as dominant as ever
SD Worx, a former five-time world number one ranked team as Boels Dolmans, is back at the top of the leaderboard particularly after their dominant showing at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Everyone new that the double word champion Anna van der Breggen would be a favourite for the win, but we're not sure everyone expected this newly-named squad to gel as well as they did in the first race of the year.
The team lined up with arguably their strongest roster led by Van der Breggen and including Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, Amy Pieters, Christine Majerus, Jolien D'hoore and new signing Demi Vollering.
When the race split over the Leberg climb, SD Worx had four riders in the front group of roughly 18 riders including Van der Breggen, Pieters, Van den Broek-Blaak and Vollering.
At that point, the numbers were in their favour, and it was their race to lose, but when van der Breggen powered off the front over the Bosberg climb and gained 20 seconds, the chase group knew they were racing for second.
Norsgaard shines as Van Vleuten misses the move
Annemiek van Vleuten came into the race as the defending champion and out-right favourite to win for a second consecutive year. In a rare occurrence, however, the European champion missed the decisive split in the field over the Leberg climb and found herself chasing the 18-rider front group.
She was kicking herself for being in a bad position during the crucial moment of the race, and said, "I should be in position at the right moment so that’s the stupid thing for me."
The silver lining was that her new Movistar teammate Emma Norsgaard showed her early-season form, and smarts, and made it into the front split that include four riders from SD Worx. The odds were stacked against the lone Movistar contender in the winning lead group, but Norsgaard powered her way to second place behind solo winner Anna van der Breggen.
“I'm just over the moon - I feel a bit surprised about the result, but above all, really happy," Norsgaard said. "I tried to remain as calm and focused as I could all day, since our plan was going on the attack with Annemiek or Leah [Thomas] and, in my case, try to save those legs for the sprint and play a second card for the team. When we got told on the radio that I was alone into a selected first group, it was time for me to 'wake up' and put all of my energies into trying to stay there until the sprint.
"They kept me so calm and well-informed from the team car, giving me all information that I needed to focus on the task ahead and give it my all. It's sad it wasn't for first place with Van der Breggen ahead, of course, but this result gives us all a lot of morale. Doing well here was a goal for me and the rest of the team and we're even more excited for the upcoming races. The legs are there, my shape is good and we must keep doing our best."
The most impressive rider of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was Lotte Kopecky (Liv Racing). Although the Belgian champion only managed fourth on the day, she was a constant contender throughout the entire 126km race from Gent to Ninove.
Every single time a move went on the cobbled climbs, Kopecky was there with the strongest climbers in the race, biding her time and waiting for the right moment to make her own move.
Some might have expected Kopecky to wait for a potential sprint, as one of the fastest sprinters in the front split, but she was not about to let the race go up the road when Demi Vollering (SD Worx) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) were ahead of the group over the Muur. Kopecky tried her own move, too, and although the front group came back together, it meant she was still in contention for the victory.
A powerful SD Worx team thwarted tactics near the end and double world champion Van der Breggen made her winning move over the Bosberg, but Kopecky was one of the standout riders of this edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
She had a breakthrough year in 2020 with a stage victory at the Giro Rosa and podium finishes at Le Samyn des Dames, Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders and Brugge-De Panne. Watch for her in the Spring Classics before she turns her attention to the Madison at the summer Olympic Games.
Brown caught up in crash but still makes the split
After an outstanding season last year, all eyes were on Grace Brown (Team BikeExchange) at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. She secured the victory at Brabantse Pijl and a second place at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and has become a contender for the Spring Classics season.
After untangling herself from getting caught behind an early-race crash, Brown went on to a strong performance and made the final split over the cobbled Molenberg with 38km to go. Team BikeExchange had Amanda Spratt and Brown represented in the move and the group’s advantage continued to increase as they headed towards Ninove. Although she tried attacking before the final, in the end, she sprinted for eighth.
“Today was a hard race, it was a shock to the system to come into our first Belgium cobbled Classic. It was a really hectic race and although we did OK in the end, there is a lot to improve on, it is our first race together for the European season and I think we will go onwards and upwards from here," Brown said.
“I am not quite at my top level yet, but I felt like I could race in the final and did some attacks and for the sprint I got a little bit pushed out of position in the roundabout and I had to jump early to get back to the front group and then the sprint was already happening. It was a really long sprint for me, and I couldn’t quite maintain the speed to come around anyone at the end.”
Watch out for Brown to make her mark during the Spring Classics.
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