The organisers offered the field a 152km route that included 13 hellingen featuring the successive three of Kruisberg/Hotond, Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg before the finish in Oudenaarde.
Cyclingnews looks at five of the biggest takeaways from the 2021 Tour of Flanders Women.
Flanders Classics takes a stance on safety
Two days to go until @RondeVlaanderen. While we are hoping for it to be the last edition under Covid-19 restrictions, general safety and rider safety in particular will remain one of our main concerns and a constant work in progress for all future editions. #RVV21April 2, 2021
Flanders Classics took a stance on safety both ethically and in general for riders that was highlighted at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday.
The organisation requested that Doltcini-Van Eyck-Proximus Manager Marc Bracke not attend its events ahead of the Tour of Flanders. A decision regarding Bracke's sanctioning has not been reached in an on-going harassment case that is now at the UCI Disciplinary Commission. Bracke has denied the allegations of harassment that were included in the formal complaint.
The organisation puts on six prestigious one-day races throughout the Spring Classics - Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars Door Vlaanderen, Tour of Flanders, Scheldeprijs, and Brabantse Pijl.
General rider safety and route protections were also a top priority for Flanders Classics. CEO Tomas Van Den Spiegel posted in a Twitter thread ahead of the Tour of Flanders that general safety and rider safety was one of the organisations' "main concerns and a constant work in progress for future editions."
He outlined that it takes months of preparation by its internal safety committee to put together a full inventory of the course and assessing all points of risk, and to then determine the safety measures needed. These main safety points were then discussed at the managers meeting the day ahead of the race, and during the race, with the addition of safety vehicles ahead of the race that point out unforeseen situations on the road.
On course were stationary and mobile signalers regulating traffic which were assisted by local police who warned of potentially dangerous situations. The event also provided early warnings using digital, electronic signs along with crash protection in the form of barriers with its partners Boplan.
"As said rider safety will remain a constant work in progress and unfortunately crashes cannot be excluded but as organizers it is our responsibility to unconditionally do everything we can and we have to be open to any suggestions and improvements," Van Den Spiegel wrote. "Personally rider safety and the responsibility that goes with it as an organizer is my biggest stress. I cross my fingers again for Sunday and hope for great races with no serious crashes."
Annemiek van Vleuten wins big for Movistar
Annemiek van Vleuten’s move to Movistar was a surprise after she had spent five successful seasons with Mitchelton-Scott. The Spanish outfit, which launched in 2018, had made steady progress in their first two seasons racing in the top-tier of women's cycling, and acquiring a four-year WorldTeam licence last year showed that the management was committed to developing their women's programme to become one of the best in the world.
Van Vleuten was eager to get the racing season underway at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, looking to open her season with a victory to impress her new squad, but a misstep during the race saw her out of position and she missed the winning move. She then finished fourth at Strade Bianche. The team has also seen the rise of sprinter Emma Norsgaard, who took second places at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Le Samyn, and Brugge-De Panne.
Van Vleuten scored her first win of the season at Dwars door Vlaanderen, but it was her win at Tour of Flanders that proved her value for the Movistar Team Women. Tour of Flanders was a major objective for Van Vleuten, who won the race back in 2011, and this year’s win became the Movistar’s first-ever victory on the Women’s WorldTour.
It was by no means an easy win. As the race played out, we saw Van Vleuten put pressure over the Kanarieberg to reduce the field to only the strongest. She then made a searing attack over the Paterberg and then an all-out effort to hold off a chase group by just seconds to cross the line with the win in Oudenaarde.
Racing for second place
It was almost jaw-dropping to watch the best riders in the world appear to race for second place at the Tour of Flanders.
Van Vleuten made a powerful attack over the steep slopes of the Paterberg that saw her gain a whisker of a gap on a powerful chase group that included double World Champion Anna van der Breggen and Demi Vollering (SD Worx), Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and Marta Cavalli (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope), Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT), Grace Brown (Team BikeExchange), and Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo).
In the 13km run-in to Oudenaarde, Van Vleuten’s gap held at five seconds, then up to 13 seconds, and back down to eight seconds, and then stretched out to more than 20 seconds in the final kilometres before the finish line.
The chase of seven riders, with some of the strongest time triallists in the world, certainly had the horsepower to close the gap, especially as it hovered between five and 10 seconds, but a lack of cooperation seemed to slow the group down, giving an additional advantage to soloist Van Vleuten.
It was one against six after Longo Borghini was instructed by her team not to chase because Lizzie Deignan was in the group behind. "I had orders not to chase because Lizzie Deignan and Ellen van Dijk were in the group just behind and I was waiting for them to come back. I hoped that with two riders each from FDJ and SD Worx, we would close the gap to Van Vleuten," Longo Borghini said.
It was one against four when Brennauer and then Brown chose to save a little energy for a sprint. "Everybody knew that I would be very fast in the sprint, so I felt we were not really going well together. I still took all my turns and tried to contribute a lot, only focusing on my sprint in the last three kilometres, but two riders were sitting on almost the whole time. That meant I did not know what to expect and had to be attentive, so I tried my best and I am happy with the second place today," Brennauer said.
And then it was one against two when SD Worx and FDJ allowed a rider each to save their energy for the final. "Anna and I gave everything in the pursuit. But the cooperation with the other riders in the chasing group was difficult," Vollering said.
In the end, Van Vleuten’s crossed the line 26 seconds ahead of the chase-group sprint for second place won by Brennauer.
Lotte Kopecky’s untimely mechanical
We’ll never know if Lotte Kopecky could have made a bid for victory at this year's Tour of Flanders because an untimely mechanical at the bottom of the Oude Kwaremont took her out of contention on Sunday.
“Such adversity at a decisive moment in the race is a shame, I felt really good today," Kopecky said after the race.
Kopecky lined up as the double Belgian champion in what is the biggest race of the season on her home soil. All of her strong performances so far this season where pointing to an important result at the Tour of Flanders - as luck would have it - it wasn't meant to be.
“The chain fell off right before climbing the Oude Kwaremont. A real shame that this happened. We were doing an excellent job as a team, were continuously at the front at the decisive moments," she explained.
"I also felt very strong. After the technical, I was able to continue on the road on a teammate’s bike, but unfortunately, I was slightly too far behind to be able to play a significant role. We all know that you have to be at the front on the Oude Kwaremont.”
The race continued to split apart on the Oude Kwaremont and then Van Vleuten made her winning attack over the Paterberg. Kopecky finished in the fourth group on the road, a minute behind the day's solo winner.
The Kwaremont doesn’t lie
After scanning the decisive lead group of eight riders that formed over the top of the Oude Kwaremont many might have said, "where are Marianne Vos and Kasia Niewiadoma?"
Vos and Niewiadoma were two of the favourites to win the Tour of Flanders, especially after strong performances in the lead-up to the big day, but neither rider made the split when Van der Breggen put pressure on the steeper slopes of the Oude Kwaremont.
“There was hard racing today," Vos said. “I felt good and had confidence in the race. On the Kwaremont I had to let go. At that point I couldn’t go with the group that escaped, they were just riding too hard for me. The Kwaremont doesn’t lie. We certainly tried to come back in the group that was formed then, but it was difficult. The collaboration didn’t quite work out. I would have liked to do better today, but there simply wasn’t more in it.”
The lead group that formed over the Kwaremont included Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), Van der Breggen and Demi Vollering (SD Worx), Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and Marta Cavalli (FDJ), Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT), Grace Brown (Team BikeExchange), and Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo).
Van Vleuten then attacked over the Paterberg and took a solo victory ahead of the chase group of seven riders.
“I don’t want to use word disappointed because it doesn’t describe it," said Niewiadoma. "I feel like it’s a wasted opportunity for a beautiful result. I had great feelings for most of the race and then all of the sudden I had nothing. I was hoping for a better result for the team."
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