One of the most powerful teams in the peloton, the riders of SD Worx awoke early on Thursday to preview the new features of this year's Tour of Flanders route that includes the iconic Koppenberg for the first time in the event's history. It also gave the riders a chance to hatch a plan to beat the likes of World Champion Elisa Balsamo (Trek-Segafredo), who is on a remarkable winning streak, and defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar).
"[Elisa] can do a great job. She's proven that she can survive a few climbs, and yeah, she's really strong. It will also be a really hard race on Sunday, so it could be that she's not there anymore. I think that's something we need to find out. But for sure, she's somebody to look at," said Demi Vollering, who admitted that one of the SD Worx team goals would be to try and distance the Italian on the route's steeper ascents. "Make a hard race, and then yeah, that's the goal, of course."
Balsamo secured the world title after winning the sprint at the Flanders Worlds last fall. While wearing the rainbow jersey, she won the first stage of Setmana Ciclista Valenciana. She has more recently won a sequence of races at Brugge-De Panne, Trofeo Alfredo Binda and Gent-Wevelgem, making her the favourite for Tour of Flanders. She also lines up with a strong Trek-Segafredo team that includes former Flanders winners Elisa Longo Borghini and Ellen van Dijk.
However, Vollering pointed out that SD Worx was not the only team that would try and make a hard race even harder. Van Vleuten lines up as the defending champion, and she is known for audacious long-range victories and solo attacks. The addition of the Koppenberg has tipped the route even more into her favour.
"I think we are not the only team who wants a hard race. Movistar, for example, with Annemiek, will show some fireworks. That's also a good thing for us that Annemiek is racing again, because, they also want a hard race."
Vollering isn't soon to forget the lengths it took for SD Worx to beat Van Vleuten at Strade Bianche in early March. The team's strength in numbers and sheer depth were on full display on the gravel roads and steep pitches of Tuscany, where they managed to isolate an ever-aggressive Van Vleuten. Kopecky was the only rider who could match Van Vleuten on the steep slopes of Via Santa Caterina and then beat her in a sprint in the Piazza del Campo to win Strade Bianche.
"We need to make a hard race. So that's something that we liked. But also, Annemiek is, of course, a really big rider who we need to take care of because she's dangerous. Something like [what we did at] Strade is a good tactic. Of course, we really went all in for it with the whole team, which was super cool. They were always attacking, so she needed to react. And yeah, that worked out pretty well. Let's hope it works again; I would like this on Sunday."
Asked if it might take an entire SD Worx team to contain a rider like Van Vleuten at the Tour of Flanders, Vollering said, "Yeah, probably. Yeah. I think she's really strong. We need to go all-in with each other for beating her, yeah."
After previewing the Koppenberg on Thursday, Vollering described it as a challenging climb where positioning will be critical to not losing the entire race.
"It's a bit harder and a bit more challenging because if you're not in the front on the Koppenberg, you can lose the race there because it's a steep, small climb. And if you're not at the front there, then I think you're running behind everything though the rest of the race," Vollering said.
"I think you can lose the race there, but I don't know if you can win it there. So, I think it's a really important climb, but it's still quite early. I think you can lose it there, and you need to be in full focus because if you're not in a good position, you already have a big problem."
The Koppenberg, a 77-metre-high climb in Oudenaarde first introduced to the men's event in the 1970s, is positioned mid-race at the 114km mark, and although it's only 600 metres long, it boasts pitches as steep as 22 per cent along rough cobblestone. It will undoubtedly mark the beginning of the late-race fireworks in the women's race, located just 45km from the finish line.
Vollering said the route suits her but also noted that other riders in the race are strong on punchy ascents like the Koppenberg, Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. Favourites also include former winners Marianne Vos and Coryn Labecki (Jumbo-Visma) and Marta Bastianelli (UAE Team ADQ), along with Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and Grace Brown (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) and Canyon-SRAM's trio of Kasia Niewiadoma, Elise Chabbey and Soraya Paladin.
"It's a climb, which can suit me. But, of course, multiple riders can do a great job on this climb. We never did it before in a women's race, so you don't know exactly. I think we will find out Sunday. Marlen [Reusser] from our team was also riding well there, and Lotte [Kopecky] is good in the shorter and steep climbs. So in our team, we have plenty of riders who can do a great job on this climb."
SD Worx lines up with Vollering, Kopecky, Reusser, Elena Cecchini, Christine Majerus, and former winner Chantal van den Broek-Blaak. Vollering finished fifth in 2021 while racing with SD Worx and seventh in 2020 while racing for Parkhotel Valkenburg.
"I was in a smaller team, so I did everything on my own [in 2020]. I reacted to everything on my own. And now I have a really big team around me who also can react, so that's something that you ... then you can sit in the peloton and like 'relax' a bit because the whole team can do something for everybody. You're not riding alone; you have a whole team deep into the final, so that's cool about our team."
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Kirsten Frattini is the Deputy Editor of Cyclingnews, overseeing the global racing content plan.
Kirsten has a background in Kinesiology and Health Science. She has been involved in cycling from the community and grassroots level to professional cycling's biggest races, reporting on the WorldTour, Spring Classics, Tours de France, World Championships and Olympic Games.
She began her sports journalism career with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. In 2018, Kirsten became Women's Editor – overseeing the content strategy, race coverage and growth of women's professional cycling – before becoming Deputy Editor in 2023.