Blaak surprised, disappointed to be left off Dutch team for Rio Olympics
'I was as confident as I could be that I would be selected,' says Boels-Dolmans rider
When the Dutch Federation announced its selection for the 2016 Olympic Games on Tuesday, a notable name was not among the riders selected to toe the start line in Rio in August. National coach Johan Lammerts, the Dutch Federation's one-man selection committee, named Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv), Ellen van Dijk (Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team), Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-AIS) and London Olympic gold medallist Marianne Vos (Rabo-Liv) to the team. Chantal Blaak, who consistently posted the best results amongst her compatriots this spring, had not made the selection.
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"With my results this spring, I was as confident as I could be that I would be selected, and I think I deserve a spot based on my results," Blaak told Cyclingnews.
"I need to accept how it is," she added. "It was a dream to go to Rio, to be there, to do my best for the Netherlands and that dream is gone now."
To understand Blaak's reaction, one first needs to understand her nation's selection process. The Netherlands lacks automatic selection criteria, so every rider earns a spot through discretionary selection. The selection decision rests in the hands of one person – national coach Johan Lammerts, after which the Dutch Olympic Federation approves his decision. The approval process is widely assumed to be a formality.
Blaak has the option to appeal her non-selection, but with a single individual having sole authority to make selection decisions, the appeal process could be an exercise in futility.
"It's not worth it, and I should not have a good feeling about it because I have the World Championships to think about," Blaak said. "It's important for me to keep a good relationship with Johan and the federation."
The four riders who ultimately earned selection, along with Blaak and Lucinda Brand (Rabo-Liv) travelled to Rio with the national team last November to preview the time trial and road courses. During this trip, Blaak had an opportunity to learn what she would need to do to return to Rio come August.
"Let's just say, I knew I needed to have a good spring," Blaak said.
To say Blaak had a good spring would be an understatement.
The 26-year-old had the best spring of her career to date. From 13 starts, she finished on the podium nine times – five times on the top step. She won two of the UCI Women's WorldTour races – Ronde van Drenthe and Gent Wevelgem - and finished third at Tour of Flanders where her teammate Lizzie Armitstead won.
Blaak was part of her team's team time trial win at Energiewacht Tour, a first for Boels-Dolmans, and won the first road stage to move into the race leader's jersey. When she lost the jersey three stages later it was to a teammate.
"That was my season," Blaak said. "Tell me – what else could I have done?"
Blaak recognises that no race in the European spring matches the demands of the Rio course. She understands that she's not a climber and that a climber will win the Olympics this summer, but because Blaak's role at the Olympics would have been on behalf of her team leaders during the first 90-kilometres, she didn't expect decisions to be made solely on climbing ability.
Van der Breggen excelled in the mountains last season winning La Flèche Wallonne and the Giro Rosa. Her hilliest wins were among the 13 victories she achieved in her breakthrough season. She closed out the year with a pair of silver medals at the 2015 Road World Championships in Richmond in the road race and the time trial. Although Van der Breggen's only victory in 2016 so far has been to repeat at La Flèche Wallonne, it's no surprise that the hopes of a medal for The Netherlands rest primarily on her shoulders.
While Vos has had an injury plagued 18-months, she won gold in the road race in London in 2012 and signs of her previous form have begun to emerge as she gets more racing in her legs. While she may not yet have return to the level she achieved when she was at her most dominant, a not-quite-on form Vos is still a formidable threat.
Olympic rules mandate that any rider that starts the time trial must also race the road race, and it was widely believed that Van Dijk would occupy the third road spot by virtue of her selection to the time trial. Her suspicions proved accurate. Van Dijk was chosen to race the time trial, and that left one spot available.
Brand struggled through the spring, ruling herself out of selection. Van Vleuten proved consistent with 14 top-tens including a prologue victory at Festival Elsy Jacobs. She is also a three-time stage winner at the Giro Rosa and has been consistently a top performer out of the Netherlands during her career. A side-by-side comparison of the two riders during this spring alone, however, shows that Blaak has had ample success. As for their skills on the Olympic course, Van Vleuten might the stronger climber of the two, but Blaak has shown to be a proven domestique.
"The climb [in the Olympic road race course] is so hard that I think maybe there were only be four or five girls that make it together," Blaak said. "I would have gone for the first part of the race, and I would have killed myself for my teammates."
The news has forced Blaak to rework the reminder of her season. When she initially received an email notifying her that she hadn't made the cut, she allowed herself a few days to consider the disappointment.
"Johan sent out an email to everyone," Blaak explained. "Honestly, I believed I was going to learn happy news. Then I read the email – and boom. I don't even know. I totally blacked out. I was very white, and I had to sit down. I don't remember much."
Blaak described a lack of motivation in the aftermath. She recalls questioning her career decision and the energy she gives to the sport. She's known the news for a week, and says the disappointment are not quite so raw now.
"Being back with the team helps," said Blaak, who spoke to Cyclingnews from the South Lake Tahoe resort in California before the Amgen Women's Tour of California. "It was a really tough week at home emotionally, but now I'm here with my teammates again. I had been really looking forward to this trip – to get back into the race rhythm and rejoin the team. And even with all that's happened, I'm ready to start again.
"I realise now that it's not the end of the world. There are more races to come where I can do well. I will focus on the Nationals, the World Championships, the team time trial. My teammates are counting on me. I'm really happy with my spring, and I hope to continue with my strong form for the rest of the year."
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