It seemed counter-intuitive to see Coryn Rivera riding herself to a standstill at the front of a reduced leading group in the finale of Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday and then swinging off before the finishing sprint, but there was a firm logic to Sunweb's tactics.
With the American still a notch or two shy of her best form, Sunweb elected beforehand to make the race as difficult as possible in the hope of providing a launchpad for the powerful Ellen van Dijk to force her way clear. Rivera, with the defence of her crown at next weekend's Tour of Flanders firmly in mind, was content to perform a supporting role here.
"I'm still not feeling super 100 percent, so I was using Gent-Wevelgem more as a build race," Rivera told Cyclingnews in Waregem this week. "I changed roles a bit and worked for my teammates because it's not fair to have the team to work for me if someone else is doing a lot better. It's only fair, and we're a very honest team.
"We made the race as hard as we could and split it apart for Ellen to maybe have a chance with a really late, hard attack. It didn't really work out that way, but even so, we had a plan and we really executed it well."
Rivera began her campaign with a solid fifth place at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad at the end of February, but the following weekend's snowbound edition of Strade Bianche exacted a toll that has impacted on her performances in the weeks that followed. Although she had the wherewithal to carve out a sixth place at the Ronde van Drenthe and 15th in the Trofeo Binda on the following two weeks, the effects of that icy afternoon in Tuscany lingered for some time.
"I really just was totally blocked at Strade Bianche. I didn't finish and I was extremely cold. I might have taken off my jacket a bit too soon and my core got really cold and I couldn't push anymore," Rivera said. "It wasn't just me who had to struggle with fatigue afterwards. I think a lot of our guys had struggled with it, too. I went really deep there and it took a bit of time to recover from that.
"There has to be a balance in your training, too, because you do need to take care of yourself, but also you still have to continue to progress and build after each race that you've done."
Rivera will not be part of Sunweb's line-up for Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, preferring instead to spend the week training at her European base over the Dutch border in Limburg before returning to Belgium at the weekend for the Ronde.
Although Rivera reached Belgian cycling's day of days in 2017 already buoyed by victory at the Trofeo Binda, she was not Sunweb's sole leader for the race. With 2014 winner Van Dijk and Lucina Brand also in the line-up, she will again be part of a multi-pronged offensive this time around.
"Last year, I was a support rider but I happened to be there in the finish and we had to change our cards because that was the best play," Rivera said. "I think that's one of our team's strengths. If it's not going great, we're able to change something. And we have a strong team so that helps as well."
Rivera began her 2018 season mindful that she could replicate or even better her form of a year ago and still not come close to matching the same striking haul of victories. Such are the vagaries of bike racing in general and the Classics in particular. Repeating at De Ronde is an objective rather than an obsession. Whatever the result in Oudenaarde, Rivera will move on to the Ardennes Classics with ambition.
"Just because I won races last year doesn't mean I'm going to do it again this year. Every year is different, and every circumstance is different," Rivera said.
"Last year I didn't wake up thinking I was going to win this race. It's just how you wake up on the day, how the cards unfold and how the stars align on race day. There are things you can control, like your form and how you race as a team. But then there's a lot of other factors you just can't control, like the weather and how other people race, things like that."
Even so, Rivera and Sunweb will feel they have more control over their destiny in 2018 than they might have done in years past in the Ronde when the terms of engagement were dictated by one prodigiously strong individual or one powerful team. Kasia Niewiadoma and Canyon-SRAM have impressed this season, but Sunweb, Mitchelton-Scott and Boels-Dolmans all possess similar strength in depth.
"It should be a really interesting race because now I feel the teams are really balanced. There's not one super, super strong team or one crazy superstar," Rivera said.
"It really makes for good racing. It's not like there's one team winning every weekend, and you wait for their play and then you react to it. It's a lot more balanced and it makes for really good racing. It's better for spectators too. It's a bit more unpredictable."
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