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While the Tour of Flanders might not be the longest standing event on the women's calendar, it has become an integral part of the spring calendar since its inception 14 years ago. It is also the sixth round of the 2018 Women's WorldTour.
The women's peloton had long been taking on the rough hellingen - hills - around Flanders, but 2004 was the first time that an official Ronde Van Vlaanderen voor Vrouwen took place. The event has developed over the years from the decidedly short 94km offering in its inaugural edition to last year's race, which came in at 153km.
After being broadcast online in recent seasons, the 15th edition of the race will be the first to be broadcast on television.
Cyclingnews has been digging through the race's archives and reliving some of the best moments that Flanders' Finest has had to offer over the past 14 years.
Winner: Zoulfia Zabirova
What the inaugural edition of the women's Tour of Flanders lacked in distance, it made up for in aggressive racing. Starting in Oudenaarde, several years before the men's finish moved there, the race took in nine climbs, including the double-header of the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg before the finish in Meerbeke.
On familiar ground many expected the Belgians and the Dutch to come out on top, but Russian Zoulfia Zabirova had other plans. Zabirova had been in good form in the build-up to the race, claiming victory in the Primavera Rosa two weeks beforehand. Repeated attacks whittled down the peloton but it was a move at the half-way point, which included pre-race favourites Leontien Zijlaard-Van Moorsel, Mirjam Melchers, Hanka Kupfernagel, and Zabirova herself, which set the scene for the finale.
The breakaway was brought back with 30 kilometres still to run to the finish line but it did some serious damage to the peloton, which had dwindled in numbers. Zabirova bided her time over the Tenbosse, before surging clear on the Muur with just under 15 kilometres to go. Once Zabirova edged clear, it was a tantalising pursuit to the line between the Russian and a three-woman group of Trixi Worrack, Van Moorsel and Melchers. The three chasers must have felt that they could reach out and touch Zabirova, with her advantage never more than 15 seconds at any time, but she had done enough.
Zabirova crossed the line alone, with Worrack beating Van Moorsel in a sprint four seconds behind, while Melchers finished fourth. Zabirova had time to celebrate and catch her breath by the time the first big group crossed the line 1:20 after she’d raised her arms in victory. She would finish on the podium in 2007, but the 2004 Tour of Flanders would be one of the last major victories in Zabirova’s career. She is now the general manager of the Astana Women's team.
Winner: Mirjam Melchers-Van Poppel
Since the first edition, the women's Tour of Flanders had been extended to 112 kilometres and the number of climbs had increased to 12, but the race retained the punchy double of the Muur and the Bosberg.
Mirjam Melchers-Van Poppel went into the race with the number one on her back after winning the previous year, when she'd distanced her Flexpoint teammate Susan Ljungskog to take the title. Meanwhile, the chasing group behind were taken down the wrong road and ended up crossing the finish line from the wrong direction, which resulted in them all receiving a DNF.
The 2006 edition was much less controversial, but the racing itself was entirely more dramatic, and Melchers-Van Poppel was pushed right to the line by her breakaway companion Christiane Soeder. It was dry as the riders rolled out of Oudenaarde just before lunchtime, but the cobbles were slick with the rain from earlier in the day. By the second sector of cobbles, before the climbs even began, the peloton had been reduced to just 50 riders.
An early crash forced Soeder to walk up the Eikenberg, but she was back at the front when Melchers-Van Poppel made her first move along the two-kilometre Haaghoek stretch of cobbles. Kimberly Andersen and Edwige Pitel were the only two able to go with Melchers-Van Poppel and Soeder, but Andersen was quickly distanced. The gap was holding at 40 seconds as they approached the Valkenberg with 32 kilometres remaining. It was then that Melchers-Van Poppel decided to distance her two companions, putting in a stinging attack on the climb.
By the Muur, she had a minute on the chasers and it looked like she was about to solo to an emphatic victory, but Soeder wasn’t about to give up. The Austrian dropped Pitel and set off in chase of the leader, bringing her back with just two kilometres remaining. Both Soeder and Melchers-Van Poppel were on their knees as the race rolled into Meerbeke, but it was the latter who took the spoils in the sprint finish, with Loes Gunnewijk rounding out the podium. Melchers-Van Poppel would later say that she "experienced the race like a war".
Winner: Judith Arndt
After Mirjam Melchers-Van Poppel, Judith Arndt became the second woman to win the Tour of Flanders on two separate occasions. The course had changed in the time since her first win in 2008, with both the start and finish now in Oudenaarde, and the Muur-Bosberg finale removed. It was longer, too, at 127 kilometres. Despite the changes, the scenario was distinctly familiar to four years prior, with Arndt battling fellow time triallist Kristen Armstrong for the win.
Armstrong's US national team set out to destroy the peloton right from the off, with Kristin McGrath saying afterwards that they'd planned to be barely able to cross the line. The approach took no prisoners, and defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten saw her chances of a repeat performance dashed with a puncture on the opening cobbles on Paadestraat. Repeated attacks across the subsequent climbs split the bunch into several pieces.
Carmen Small brought what was left of the bunch onto the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont, laying the groundwork for Armstrong to launch the decisive attack. As it had been in 2008, it was only Arndt that had the power and energy left to hold onto the American. The gap was never that large, but a breakdown in communication meant that the riders behind were getting no time gaps. AA Drinks-Leontien.nl did the bulk of the chasing behind, but couldn't bring the two escapees back.
Neither rider could claim to be a sprinter, so it was almost a battle of wits as much as speed. Armstrong launched her charge for the line with more than 300 metres to go. Arndt reacted. Her turn of pace wasn't explosive, but it was enough to give her a two-second advantage on the finish line.
Winner: Ellen van Dijk
With defending champion Marianne Vos opting to take a late start to her season, the 2013 runner-up Ellen van Dijk was a big favourite for the 2014 title. At 27, Van Dijk was something of a late bloomer in cycling but the previous season had proved a breakthrough one for the Dutch rider, finishing third in the World Cup, winning a stage of the Giro Rosa, and taking home the team and individual time trial titles at the World Championships in Florence.
In 2013, Van Dijk had gotten away on the Oude Kwaremont with Vos, Emma Johansson, and Elisa Longo Borghini, but didn’t have the sprint to defeat her illustrious compatriot Vos in the rush to the line. That would not be a problem for Van Dijk in 2014.
Early attacks were given short shrift, and nobody gained more than 30 seconds on the peloton. With Lizzie Deignan for back-up, Van Dijk took her opportunity with 26 kilometres to go. Tiffany Cromwell would try to bridge the gap, but she was quickly caught by the chasing pack. As Van Dijk's lead extended to 38 seconds, Deignan set off with Johansson and Longo Borghini.
However, Van Dijk made use of her time trialling skills to keep the three chasers at bay. There was no question who the winner was as she entered the finishing straight with a minute on those behind. Behind, Deignan took the sprint for second place, with Johansson beating Longo Borghini into third place for the second year running. Van Dijk's winning margin remains the largest in the women’s Tour of Flanders history.
Winner: Elisa Longo Borghini
Elisa Longo Borghini has many strengths but sprinting has never been one of them. The Italian had twice seen the podium slip through her fingers in the past two years, making it into the key selection before being beaten in the rush to the line. 2015, however, would be different for the young rider.
Having enjoyed a successful spell at Hitec Products, where she scored a breakthrough win at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda in 2014, Longo Borghini was now racing in the orange and black of Wiggle-Honda. She had been going well, with a podium at Strade Bianche and fourth at Alfredo Binda, but a win was yet to come.
The 2015 edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen voor Vrouwen was the longest to date – and the second longest ever – at 144.9km. It included 10 climbs and five cobbled sectors. The race was tentative to start with but, almost 60 kilometres in, the race exploded as it passed over the third cobbled sector of the day. Each and every attack whittled the bunch down until there were fewer than 30 riders remaining.
The attacks were relentless, but each was swiftly brought back until Longo Borghini broke clear with Trixi Worrack with 20 kilometres remaining. When Worrack cracked, it was just Longo Borghini left and she had 15 kilometres still to run to the line. The move was reminiscent of Van Dijk's the year before and it was the Dutchwoman's Boels Dolmans team that was tasked with shutting it down.
Knowing that she stood little chance of taking something if the race came down to a sprint, no matter how small, Longo Borghini forged on alone. Try as they might, Boels Dolmans couldn't close the Italian down and she had a comfortable 43 seconds on the chasers when she crossed the line. Teammate Jolien D’hoore won the bunch sprint behind to make it a 1-2 for the Wiggle squad, with Anna van der Breggen rounding out the podium.
Winner: Coryn Rivera
The 2017 women's Tour of Flanders was the first run under the new UCI regulations, which allowed for longer women's races. The extended route gave the organisers the chance to bring back the mythical Muur van Geraardsbergen climb, as they had done for the men.
Many of the past editions had ended in a breakaway of some proportion, and this new, tougher course was expected to deliver something similar. The riders would have to tackle 12 climbs, including the Muur, the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg. Five sectors of cobbles would also serve to weed out those who didn't have the legs.
Flanders was the fifth round of the Women's WorldTour, with a different rider winning each of the four previous rounds. Defending champion Lizzie Deignan was on the start line in Oudenaarde along with most of the top riders in the women's peloton. Despite plenty of attempts, it wasn't until the Muur, with some 60 kilometres remaining, that the race began to take shape. A group of 50 riders moved clear over the steep, cobbled slope, with Sunweb’s Rozanne Slik attacking off the front of the seriously reduced peloton.
She enjoyed 20 kilometres out front before she was caught, signalling a series of attacks from the main contenders, including Deignan. After being led into the Kruisberg by teammate Amy Pieters, Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen charged off the front, taking Kasia Niewiadoma and past champions Elisa Longo Borghini and Annemiek van Vleuten with her.
With a sizeable lead, it looked like the victory would be decided between this quartet but there was dissent in the ranks, with Van der Breggen refusing to take turns. Her refusal took the impetus out of the attack and some hard work by Ellen van Dijk, now racing for Team Sunweb, helped a 15-rider chase bring the four back inside the final kilometre.
While all of this was going on, Coryn Rivera had kept her nose clean and, with the help of a past champion, the American was untouchable in the sprint. Beating Gracie Elvin and Chantal Blaak, Rivera won her second WorldTour race of the season.
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