Having won the race three times before, in 2009, 2013, and 2018, Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) was among the favourites for Sunday's Postnord Vårgårda WestSweden Road Race. Wearing the bib number one as last year's winner, Vos came into the race aiming to defend her title but was pipped at the line by a faster sprinter - Marta Bastianelli.
"Marta was too strong," Vos said of the Italian champion, who will be one of Vos' biggest rivals at the UCI Road World Championships in Yorkshire next month.
Vos and Bastianelli are both eyeing the world title on the Yorkshire route, and the Vargarda road race was one of the last opportunities for the peloton's top sprinters and puncheurs to compete against one another in a one-day format before the race for the rainbow jersey. Vos has won the elite women's road race world title on three occasions (2006, 2012 and 2013) while Bastianelli won the world title in 2007.
In Vårgårda, however, the race did not start well for the Dutch veteran who suffered a puncture on the third of eight gravel sections. Though Vos got a quick wheel change and was back in the peloton soon, she missed a move that went clear around the same time, forming a strong breakaway. CCC-Liv initially had Jeanne Korevaar in the group, but Korevaar was called back to the peloton to help in the team's chase effort that, together with Trek-Segafredo, brought the race back together with 62km to go.
Having closed the last of the gap herself with an attack on the Hägrunga hill, Vos was attentive in the five finishing laps that followed. She stayed near the front but did not follow any moves until the final lap. When solo leader Moniek Tenniglo (Mitchelton-Scott) had been reeled in with three kilometres to go, Vos tried to benefit from the regrouping.
She launched an attack herself, but this move came to nothing. Unlike last year, Vos' acceleration around the final corner was not enough to win the sprint as Bastianelli (Virtu) had taken Vos' wheel and beat her to the line by a narrow margin.
"There were still a lot of riders in the bunch, but it was a strong attack by Tenniglo," Vos said. "We needed a strong chase, and there were more individuals chasing than teams taking charge, really. But of course, the bunch gains a lot of speed when getting ready for the sprint. In the end, Marta was too strong and came around me in the final sprint."
The Vårgårda Road Race was a hard-fought, attritional race with many attacks where less than 40 riders stayed in the peloton for the final sprint.
"The whole race was quite fast," Vos agreed. "It is probably the things that follow up on each other all the time. Either there is a gravel section, or you go up the climb on the final laps. That's what makes this race so hard."
With its finishing circuits, the Vårgårda Road Race is similar to the Yorkshire World Championships in just over a month. Despite being in excellent form in the autumn, Vos opted to skip the mountainous 2018 Worlds in Innsbruck that didn't suit her strengths. The Harrogate circuit, however, fits Vos very well, and she is in even better form this year.
Returning to her winning ways after an injury break, Bastianelli has now staked her claim as another contender for the rainbow jersey as part of a strong Italian selection. Vos' advantage come September may be that the Dutch national team is even stronger.