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Tactics gone wrong for Dutch in women's road race at World Championships

Annemiek van Vleuten speaks with the press at the start of the elite women's World Championships road race in Antwerp
Annemiek van Vleuten speaks with the press at the start of the elite women's World Championships road race in Antwerp (Image credit: Getty Images)

Elisa Balsamo (Italy) took the rainbow jersey from the star-studded Dutch team in the elite women’s road race at the UCI World Championships on Saturday. Balsamo held off Marianne Vos (Netherlands) who was the dedicated rider in the orange line-up for the group sprint.

In stark contrast to the impressive Italian lead-out was the seemingly lack of unity in the Dutch team throughout the race. They relentlessly attacked throughout the final 50 kilometres but then lacked the numbers to do a proper lead-out for Marianne Vos in the final kilometre.

Ellen van Dijk, who won the individual time trial at the World Championships on Monday and the road race at the European Championships earlier this month, felt the team failed in the lead-out.

“The plan was to keep attacking until the last climb of the Wijnpers, with 4km to go. If that didn’t succeed it was about doing the lead-out for Marianne in the sprint. That’s where we failed. The lead-out wasn’t good enough. Now she had to close a gap. If she didn’t have to close that gap then it might’ve turned out differently. I saw it happening at 600 metres and knew it wasn’t good. We weren’t grouped together as we should’ve been at that point. We lacked the numbers there and that might’ve been because of all the attacks we did," Van Dijk said.

"Annemiek rode a strong finale. I was happy about my finale. With the two of us it wasn’t possible to do the lead-out we wanted to do. The Italians were able to pull that off. That made the difference,” Van Dijk said in the mixed zone in Leuven. 

Van Dijk briefly featured in a front group but didn’t push on. 

“I’m not a sprinter so riding to the finish in a group is a risk for me. The deal we made in Team NL is that you can ride away but you’ve got to make sure that you can win. That’s not an easy mission and puts a lot of pressure on your shoulders and I didn’t dare to keep going with that group,” Van Dijk said. 

In the final lap, Van Dijk managed to break the group to pieces on the final climb of the Wijnpers and, together with Vos, she featured in a lead group of five riders. 

“Marianne told me to keep riding and I did but on my own it wasn’t possible to hold off the chase group,” Van Dijk said.

The 2017 world champion Chantal van den Broek-Blaak is retiring after the 2022 spring classics season, and rode her final road World Championships race. She wasn’t happy about how the Dutch team rode, either. 

“This wasn’t a good race on our part. We weren’t riding as a team. Marianne can’t be blamed for not winning. We should’ve been riding as a team much more than how we did. We wanted to do well but for some reason it’s not happening the way we wanted to do it. We’ve got so much power in the group and I think we should’ve started much earlier to take the race in our hands, about halfway through the race,” Van den Broek-Blaak said. 

Van Dijk disagreed with that suggestion, saying, “It wouldn’t have changed much. On this course it’s difficult to create gaps. We all tried it. The race was hard enough. The climbs were too short to make the difference,” Van Dijk said.

Annemiek van Vleuten said it, without many words, that the team wasn’t acting well together early on. Also, cyclo-cross world champion Lucinda Brand felt like the attacks were not very well coordinated. 

“We were acting fragmented, like ‘loose sand’. We should’ve followed up on each other’s attacks. If one rider attacked, the other rider was too far back. As a result everybody was spending a lot of energy. Everybody has to question herself. It wasn’t easy to join while other countries were able to do so. Maybe some women were riding too much for themselves. I can look at myself in the mirror,” Brand said.

Olympic time trial champion and 2019 world champion Van Vleuten tried hard to avoid making fierce statements but showed her annoyance with the team performance. 

“This was shameful towards Marianne,” Van Vleuten told NOS. “I’m not going to say much here. The evaluation has to be made within the team. Personally, I didn’t have a plan since there was a plan for team NL. That was wearing everybody down. I think I did my share of work in doing that," she said.

"Coryn Rivera and Lotte Kopecky were no longer there for the sprint but not all the fast women like Balsamo were gone. When the Spanish champion was up front everybody was looking at each other so I ended up thinking: 'I’ll do it'. 

"Ellen and I managed to bring Marianne back to the front in the final kilometres but we were no longer able to do a lead-out. I went for gold for the Netherlands but not everybody did that,” Van Vleuten said in the mixed zone. 

Demi Vollering: I feel guilty

The presence of other Dutch women in the lead group who weren’t doing their share of the work didn’t go unnoticed. Van Vleuten didn’t name anybody but she spotted her compatriots as well.

Demi Vollering finished seventh and she was in tears while doing interviews in the mixed zone. “I’m sad because I wasn’t able to help the other girls. I don’t think they feel like I helped a lot. The looks I received from the others were telling. I’ll talk to them later on. Right, now I’m really disappointed,” Vollering said.

“The plan was that everybody who was still on board would do the lead-out. Ellen did a really good turn and then it was up to me. It’s a real pity that I wasn’t able to do that very well. I have to look back at the sprint and was on the limit so don’t know for sure what happened but I think the Italians went quite early and Marianne was slightly gapped,” Vollering said.

Vollering had two mechanicals, which appeared to be dropped chains, first on the Smeysberg and then on the Moskesstraat, where she got off her bike and walked, later receiving a slow bike change. Although she managed to work her way back to the back of the peloton, she was again, held up on a narrow cobbled ascent after the field funnelled through and came to a standstill. With 54km to go, she was back in the main field and working her way toward the front of the field. 

“I lacked freshness. Early on I felt really good but due to a lot of bad luck I was no longer at my best. I had a mechanical but I came back and felt still OK but then they crashed in front of me. I had to come back a second time and that cost me my head. I wanted to do my share of attacks but I was on the limit and often ended up riding in the second group. It’s a real pity. I feel guilty. I was still there in the finale and the girls expected me to do my share of the work. I only had one gear left and couldn’t go any harder,” Vollering said.

Shortly after crossing the finish line, Vos was in tears after coming so close to a fourth world title. Several of her compatriots said the team didn’t cooperate well but Vos stated that no mistakes were made. 

“No, I didn’t lose because I had to close a gap on the Italian women in the final kilometre. I could bridge across and be in the right wheel. I lost the race when I couldn’t beat Elisa on the line. You lose it also during the race when you could’ve saved more energy at some points,” Vos said.

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