It was back to Italy for the third round of the Women’s WorldTour, with the Trofeo Alfredo Binda in the north of the country delivering an action-packed race that gave home nation fans plenty to cheer.
Trek-Segafredo’s plan B, Elisa Balsamo, led an Italian clean sweep of the podium in a select bunch sprint that was anything but a certainty as the strong moves that looked set to last through to the end kept being dragged back in along the 120km course.
The win at the unrelenting hilly race also earned the world champion another sought-after jersey - that of the overall Women’s WorldTour leader, with Balsamo now on 720 points, 60 ahead of Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx) in second.
The riders won’t have to wait long for their next chance to reshuffle the order, with Brugge-De Panne just days away, but before we start looking ahead to the next start list, Cyclingnews looks back at some of the biggest takeaways from Trofeo Alfredo Binda.
Podium drought continues for SD Worx
Heading towards the last stages of the race to Cittiglio, SD Worx looked to be the team in prime position - when it came to the numbers count at least - but this is one race where SD Worx don't have their usual knack of turning strength into results.
"In the final we were with five riders in the first peloton of 23," noted sports manager Danny Stam. "Then it's a pity that you can't control the race on this course. After the last Orino climb we were strong with Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak in a front group of six. But the teams of the sprinters were able to organise themselves and wipe out the lead."
That made it a reduced bunch battle for the line, a scenario where the numerical advantage helps, but only if you’ve got the organisation to capitalise on it and the speed to finish it off.
Marlen Reusser led into the final corner before teammate Van den Broek-Blaak jumped early, then spread through the bunch were teammates Elena Cecchini, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio and Niamh Fisher-Black all sprinting and continuing to try and move up the field. The Dutch rider was then swamped before the line, with Soraya Paladin (Canyon-SRAM) just edging Van den Broek-Blaak out of a podium position. Cecchini, who had made this race one of her key targets, came in just behind her teammate to take fifth at the event for a third time while Moolman-Pasio also crept into the top-10.
It was a strong showing near the top of the field, but not the podium the team had been looking for and it was also the first time this season that the world’s top team had missed out on a position in the top-three at Women’s WorldTour level.
That meant a four-year podium drought at Trofeo Alfredo Binda has been prolonged, with the last time a teammate made it to those steps in Cittiglio being in 2018 when the team was still named Boels Domans and Van Den Broek-Blaak came second. Their last race win dates back to 2016 when Lizzie Deignan, who now races for Trek-Segafredo, took the victory. (SG)
Choosing which Elisa at Trek-Segafredo
Lining up with the defending champion and the world champion left Trek-Segafredo with a tough choice. Which of ‘the two Elisas’ should Trek-Segafredo back?
Both were key favourites, both were motivated to do well in their home-nation race, but for Italian champion Elisa Longo Borghini an attack was the best winning scenario, while for Elisa Balsamo a sprint is what the team would need to work toward.
"The pre-race plan was not set. Elisa [Longo Borghini] had the freedom to attack and make a selection like last year. Our second option was a sprint finish if her attempt did not work. I really have to thank my teammates because at one point in the race we all decided to go for the sprint," said Balsamo after taking the win.
This point came with one lap of 17.6 kilometres to go in the race. Longo Borghini had joined an attack on the descent from Orino towards the finish, chasing Marlen Reusser (Team SD Worx) together with Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) and Elise Chabbey (Canyon-SRAM) and catching the Swiss champion just before they entered the final lap, 19 seconds ahead of the chase group. However, Longo Borghini did not rate her chances in this breakaway.
"We spoke about this situation the night before with our director Paolo Slongo," the Italian champion explained. "If we found ourselves in a break, we had to communicate to see how we felt and who we were with. When I saw that the three riders with me were faster than me, we decided it was not the best situation and not to work with them. Then we decided to go all-in for Elisa, to not go with any attacks and help her get over the climb and bring her in the best position possible for the sprint."
As far as choices go, it's a luxurious position for Trek-Segafredo to be in, and something they'll no doubt be able to leverage again. (LK)
A renaissance for Rachel Neylan
Rachel Neylan is one of those riders that has been down for the count a number of times in her career, but somehow keeps finding the strength to fight back.
The latest battle came as she signed for the Cronos-Casa Dorado team in 2020, a new team with WorldTeam ambitions that failed to get a Continental team licence until mid-way through the year and then had an extremely limited number of race days throughout the two seasons of 2020 and 2021, particularly at Women’s WorldTour level.
That meant Neylan not only got to the start line far less often, but also missed out on crucial qualifying races for the Australian team in the run up to the Olympic Games, ruling out the dream of selection. However, not one to give up easily, Neylan found a spot on Parkhotel Valkenburg for the last half of 2021, immediately came sixth overall in the Ladies Tour of Norway and earned a place on the Australian team for the World Championships in Flanders, plus three podium places through the rest of the season.
In September, it was announced she would be part of the new Cofidis women’s team for 2022, and she made her European debut with the new squad at Trofeo Alfredo Binda.
It may not have been a headline-making result for the 2012 Road World Championship silver medallist, but it was more than a solid start, keeping good company in the select front group with an 18th place finish. With that as a base to work from in 2022, it looks like the 40-year-old could well soon be challenging for the podium again. (SG)
18e place pour @rachneylan aujourd'hui sur le #TrofeoBinda ! #CofidisMyTeam pic.twitter.com/F0fLNUZmHKMarch 20, 2022
Stacking the deck
There once was a time when having multiple cards to play seemed an SD Worx specialty, but while they had a solid hand at the race which first ran in 1974, the trump cards were evident around the table.
SD Worx may have had Chantal van den Broek-Blaak and Ashleigh Moolman Pasio but Trek-Segafredo had two key favourites in Longo Borghini and a race-winning plan B in Balsamo. Canyon-SRAM, too, have built up their team strength this year with some key signings, and while Elise Chabbey was in a promising move that ultimately didn’t stick, she also had new teammate Soraya Paladin to help get set for the sprint which delivered the team their first Women’s WorldTour podium of 2022.
It was the same situation for UAE Team ADQ, first placing Mavi García in that strong move within 10km to go and then when that was reeled back in it was up to Sofia Bertizzolo (UAE Team ADQ) to finish it off in the sprint. FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope also had two strong options up the front in the final stages with Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and Marta Cavalli both players in the late attacks, giving the team every chance of a good result if the sprint failed to materialise.
Not one team held an overwhelming dominance – even though Trek-Segafredo’s strength was clear – and even within the teams there was not necessarily one clear winning strategy. That ultimately provided the ingredients for racing where the attacks kept coming and many breaks that looked like they could well have been the move of the day were dragged back in only for another equally promising one to form.
Given the dynamic racing that ensued, we can only hope that it is a recipe we see play out again at this race. (SG)
All-Italian podium an omen for Worlds
There may not have been any one team with more than one representative on the podium, but there was one nation who took a clean sweep, with Elisa Balsamo leading an Italian 1-2-3 ahead of Sofia Bertizzolo (UAE Team ADQ) and Soraya Paladin (Canyon-SRAM).
That means that not only have the nation managed to wrestle the rainbow stripes away from the Dutch for the first time in five years, when Balsamo won the road race at the World Championships in Flanders, but now they are also replicating the Dutch habit of podium domination.
It is the first time since 1995 that there has been an Italian clean sweep at the race, in fact up until the latest edition Longo Borghini was the only Italian rider since 2000 to have taken victory, winning in both 2013 and 2021.
On top of that, after three events of the Women’s WorldTour Balsamo is wearing the series leaders jersey, while the northern Italian race has also seen both Bertizzolo and Paladin shift up into the top ten of the series rankings.
Given performances like this it is probably not too early a call to make the call that the Italian team will likely be one of the most watched in the women’s road race at the World Championships, particularly as Longo Borghini and Balsamo already proved that they were a dangerous duo in 2021. Throw in a season of working together on the same trade team and it's hard to see them as anything other than a huge threat for all their rainbow jersey rivals in Wollongong this year. (SG)
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Simone joined the team as Production Editor based in Australia at the start of the 2021 season, having previously worked as Australian Editor at Ella CyclingTips and correspondent for Reuters and Bloomberg.
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