It’s a long time since the women of Team BikeExchange have gone this far into the season without celebrating an international race win, or even a podium place, but at Classic Brugge-De Panne on Thursday Grace Brown broke through and clearly demonstrated that despite Annemiek van Vleuten's departure the Australian-based squad can still fight for those top spots.
It’s the first Women’s WorldTour victory for the team in almost two years that has been taken by a rider other than Van Vleuten, but even before the victory from Brown there was no sense that the loss of the Dutch rider's ability to chalk up wins was weighing. Morale, in fact, seems to have been on the way up as the team adapts to a new dynamic.
It’s a bigger team in 2021, with 13 riders instead of 11, after an injection of up and comers to build on for the future and a core of riders often seen in support roles is stepping up, with two-time Road World’s medallist Amanda Spratt joined by a clearly firing Brown as well as Lucy Kennedy and Sarah Roy.
“We will play it a bit more open. We will have more riders there to be given responsibility and chances in races. Then you can go in with more cards to play as well. It's a fun way to race actually,” head sport director Martin Vestby told Cyclingnews in an interview ahead of Brugge-De Panne.
The gutsy, surprise late-race attack that netted the win for Brown ahead of a sprint-heavy chase group at Brugge De-Panne is a perfect example of this. The flat run into the race may have been more suited to the sprinters and Team BikeExchange's Roy, but she wasn't in the front group and the team instead capitalised on the chance they had with Brown's attack at ten kilometres to go.
The more open strategy may be an exciting way to race but it is a big shift from the way the team has tackled recent years, with all the eggs more likely than not to be in the Van Vleuten basket when she was on the start line. It is a tactic that may have been predictable but was so often rewarded with a visit to the top step of the podium.
“I think what we will see now during the first couple of months of the season is that everybody has to find their new place and their new role and be able to deal with it on a personal level. That’s both for me as a DS and for the riders as well,” said Vestby. “When when we can set that a little bit and have faith and trust in each other and in backing up the tactics and the way we want to move into racing them, then everybody will be more comfortable.
“Of course it's also some more pressure on some riders and they have to learn to deal with that as well and and, yes, the situation is new and needs some adapting to but I feel the group is really strong. We are a little family and I think that helps as well, having such such a good team of riders and staff.”
In the last four years Van Vleuten – who is unusually yet to capture her first season victory – was definitely the main breadwinner for that family, contributing as many wins to the team as every other rider combined. In the second year after the Dutch rider joined, the Australian team went from sixth place on the global team rankings to third, even shifting up to second in 2018.
The squad has been accustomed to a regular feed of wins in previous years, so it wouldn't have been overly surprising to find there had been some sense of pressure to show that the team could still deliver that top step before Brown came over the line first at De Panne. However, Vestby said that this was not an issue for the team.
“I don't think we feel the pressure there at all. I think we have already seen some good results. We are there fighting and giving it all. We aim high and we go for that and sometimes we lose some places by doing that, instead of saving for a little bit higher,” said Vestby.
To be preoccupied only with results just isn’t part of the team mindset.
“I think what's been really great within the team is that it's been a lot of focus on the processes and the work we put in with preparation and how we do that. I really like that, because the result will always be the consequence of the efforts and the job you have done leading into it. We can't really control the outcome, the only thing we can control is how we prepare, how we go into races and race as a team and then if we do all these things right – the best we can with the riders we have, with the material we have and with the people around them – then the outcome will be the outcome.
“Yes of course it's great if we can win races and the more races we win the better it is but I like the approach of focusing on the process.”
The key team goals this year revolve around the Ardennes Classics and the Giro Rosa for Spratt and the climbing group. Then there are the cobbled races in Belgium, following on from Brugge-De Panne and into the first women’s Paris Roubaix – if it goes ahead – and The Women’s Tour, which has been rescheduled to October.
“It is a challenging year and we are trying to puzzle it together so everyone can stay focussed and have those targets,” said Vestby.
Targets that, with the opening up of opportunities to go for the win, may look quite different to the the ones they had the year before.
“I really have felt that everybody has been looking forward to this year. It's new and exciting and people are really motivated,” said Vestby, who joined the group in 2018. “I'm really happy with where we're at now and we work on what we have and moving forward.”
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