Tiffany Cromwell (Orica-AIS) will be aiming to continue her ascendancy in the women's peloton when she forms a classy combination with Emma Johansson at La Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday.
Cromwell's form has been impressive so far this season, peaking with a win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad where she finished in front in a two-up sprint against Megan Guarnier (Rabo Women) in late February.
"I've made that step forward," the 24-year-old told Cyclingnews. "Last year it was about trying to make that front group, now I'm consistently there."
At La Flèche Wallonne, Orica-AIS will be no doubt tested by a Rabo team hell-bent on delivering Marianne Vos to her fifth victory on the Mur de Huy, which would be the prolific Dutchwoman's fourth win in five race attempts this season.
"We have a strong team. Obviously we have Emma who's been in awesomely strong form so she'll certainly be motivated," Cromwell said of her Swedish teammate who has finished on the podium in each of her last eight races. "I've been doing plenty of training on the super-steep climbs. We've got all our climbers in here with Shara [Gilllow] and Spratty [Amanda Spratt] - some of the other girls for work like Jessie [Maclean] and Loes [Gunnewijk] so it should be good."
Cromwell raced Ronde Van Gelderland on Sunday, finishing in the lead bunch, as her first tune-up since the Tour of Flanders last month, something the Australian admitted was "a shock to the system," mentally as much as anything finding her way into the race.
"I think I'm starting to come good again," she appraised. "I started the season absolutely flying then I had a bit of sickness after the Drentse races like everybody... I've been coming back from that but I feel strong on the bike. Maybe I'm not quite as strong as I was earlier but I want to keep building again because there're all the different points throughout the year. I'm feeling strong and confident."
Cromwell raced to a top-20 at La Flèche Wallonne in 2012 and is hopeful of a top-10 this time around, given her improvement and abilities on the testing parcours which regardless of the mood of the peloton will be won and lost on the Mur. While Orica-AIS have two cards to play in Cromwell and Johansson, Rabo has three in Vos, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and Annemiek Van Vleuten. According to Cromwell, there's just one way to beat Vos.
"It needs to be a hard race," she said. "Hopefully we'll have other teams that will want to put her [Vos] on the back foot as well, to be able to make it a hard race and an aggressive race to have less people towards the finish to isolate her.
"When she's switched on 100 percent, she can be onto everything and match everything with or without a team. We just have to be smart."
It was a tactic Evelyn Stevens (Specialized-lululemon) used to perfection on the Mur in 2012, the American doing the almost unthinkable and outsprinting Vos at the death on the tricky climb. Lessons have since been learned.
"With the Mur it's so hard," Cromwell explained. "You get around the corner and you think you're nearly there then it's another corner and another corner. If you go too hard too early then you can very quickly blow up. If you have another rider that can sit back and launch again... we saw it last year - Evie was strong enough to get over Vos. It really is whoever has that last little punch at the top."
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