Once again, the Paterberg was the springboard for the race-winning attack in the women's Tour of Flanders, with Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar Team) putting the rest of the front group that had emerged on the Oude Kwaremont into the red and cresting the climb with an eight-second gap.
On the remaining 13 kilometres to the finish in Oudenaarde, Van Vleuten was chased by a select group of seven riders including Demi Vollering and Anna van der Breggen of Team SD Worx, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and Marta Cavalli of FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope, Grace Brown (Team BikeExchange), Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) and Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT). However, the group could not close the gap to Van Vleuten and instead lost more time, finishing 25 seconds behind the winner.
Longo Borghini had been told by the team not to participate in the work to pull van Vleuten back: "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."
Asked if she could have attacked from the chase group, the Italian champion stressed the importance of fair play. "It could have been an option, but only after we would have caught Annemiek. I think it is a matter of fairness not to attack a group that is working together. In the end, I had to try for the sprint. I am not really fast, and fourth place is quite okay."
Vollering and Van der Breggen, on the other hand, were chasing all-out, getting ever more frustrated at the lack of cooperation. Both riders returned from altitude training in the Sierra Nevada shortly before the race and were not at their best, which goes some way to explain why they could not do more.
"We did not race badly as a team, but we could not make the difference like in previous races," Vollering explained after her fifth-place finish. "I had no reply to Van Vleuten's attack and was gapped. Then we could see her riding, but it was difficult to get real cooperation in the chasing group. Anna and I gave everything in the pursuit, only in the last three kilometres did I save myself a bit to get a good result. But I started the sprint too early and had already done too much, my legs were completely empty."
Before Van Vleuten took off, Brown tried a solo attack like the one that won her Brugge-De Panne, making her move just after the Oude Kwaremont and initially getting a gap, but she was quickly caught again, first by a bridging Van Vleuten, then by the rest of the group. On the Paterberg, she could not follow the eventual winner and finished third in the end.
"It was a small gap, it felt like we should be able to bring it back. It was a strong chase, but unfortunately, it was not coordinated enough to actually close that gap - that was disappointing," said Brown. "I think it is always hard in that situation because the person off the front is going full, and nobody in the chase group wants to do more than the person next to them."
Despite being represented in the chase group with two riders, FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine did not do the same share of work as Vollering and Van der Breggen as both Uttrup Ludwig and Cavalli were exhausted after a hard race. The Danish climber had been among the first to react to other riders' moves both on the Kanarieberg when Van Vleuten made her first acceleration as well as on the Hotond where she also tried to attack herself, and by the Oude Kwaremont, Uttrup Ludwig was feeling the effects of this, only narrowly making it into the first group. She entered the Paterberg on Van Vleuten's wheel but quickly lost ground when the European champion attacked. Though she took her turns in the chase group, there was not much left to chase with.
Cavalli, who skipped turns in the final kilometres to Vollering's consternation, is normally an excellent sprinter, but she had nothing left to sprint with at the end and finished sixth, behind riders like Brown and Longo Borghini who, on paper, she ought to outsprint.
Finally, the presence of Brennauer in the chase group also complicated matters as the German has a good turn of speed even after long and hard races.
"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.
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