Chantal van den Broek-Blaak has turned her attention to the Tour of Flanders following the announcement that her season's target Paris-Roubaix was postponed until October 2 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The defending champion will line up with double world champion Anna van der Breggen to form a powerful combination for SD Worx in Oudenaarde on Sunday.
"Tour of Flanders is always a special race, and it's my favourite race of the year. I've been on the podium a few times, but the pressure is off because I won it last year," Van den Broek-Blaak told Cyclingnews in a phone interview on Friday.
"Of course, I want to do good at Flanders but I was actually preparing for Paris-Roubaix."
SD Worx will line up with one of the most powerful teams, with Amy Pieters, who was twice second at the Tour of Flanders, Jolien D'hoore, Demi Vollering, and Christine Majerus.
"We have arrived with six riders who can actually win Tour of Flanders, and so I think we are ready," Van den Broek-Blaak said.
Van den Broek-Blaak and Van der Breggen seem to have an instinctual connection in races that was on display during their winning efforts at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, won by Van der Breggen, and Strade Bianche won by Van den Broek-Blaak.
"It's really nice that people notice, and yes, we have that connection, almost without words," Van den Broek-Blaak said. "To understand how we feel and what we want to do in the races. We've raced a long time together and we are the same age, so our connection off the bike is also super good."
Van den Broek-Blaak was twice third at Tour of Flanders in 2016 and 2017, and last year she won the race after attacking on the Oude Kwaremont with just under 20 kilometres go. Her teammate Pieters took second place.
"I always want to give my best in Flanders because it's my kind of roads," she said.
SD Worx have won six races so far this season with six different riders, which speaks to the depth and strength of the team as a whole. The team lacked some communication and cohesion at Trofeo Alfredo Binda and Gent-Wevelgem, but Van den Broek-Blaak said that's normal in bike racing, particularly now that the collective overall strength of the peloton is so high.
"We started really good and we are still super strong," she said. "The level in the field is super high at the moment, with more stronger teams, and we can have a bad day sometimes. When you have a bad day or if the race isn't going perfect, it's not that we aren't good enough or strong enough, but all the little pieces have to come together. When that's not perfect, other teams are also there and winning, and also on a good level."
Flanders Classics have released the route details for the women's 152km race that will feature 13 hellingen, including the combination of Kruisberg-Hotond, and the final two climbs over the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, before the run-in to Oudenaarde.
"It's not really a race where you can predict where to attack at the right moment, but it always happens in the final," she said.
"It's important to make the race hard but to get to the final as fresh as possible. The fresher you are for the final, the more you can gamble."
'I would love to win Paris-Roubaix'
Van den Broek-Blaak admitted that while the Tour of Flanders is a very important race on the calendar, she had, in fact, been preparing for the first edition of the women's Paris-Roubaix that was scheduled for the following weekend on April 11.
The UCI stated on Thursday that French authorities prohibited the holding of the 2021 edition of the women's and men's Paris-Roubaix due to the current health situation. The races are now scheduled to take place on October 2 and 3, respectively.
"I was preparing for Paris-Roubaix. It's not a bad thing that it's been moved to October because we saw last year that everything happened at the end of the year, and it still turned out good," Van den Broek-Blaak said. "It's also good that it's after the World Championships. I'm happy that the organisers found a new day, and although it's too bad that it's not going through now, it's understandable, it will be good in October."
Van den Broek-Blaak said that she has spent some time previewing the route and the pavé for Paris-Roubaix and that it's a style of race that suits her power and skillset.
"I've been there and the cobbles are nothing like they are at Tour of Flanders or Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, for example, it's different, super hard and technical. If you don't know what to expect, it can be nervous and dangerous, but if you are prepared for it, it's no more dangerous than any other race," she said.
"I would love to win Paris-Roubaix. It's hard to know what will happen in that race. It was a special feeling to ride on those cobbles."
Several races have been postponed from the early-season calendar due to COVID-19 and will now take place in October, giving more racing options later in the season following the World Championships. Women's WorldTour events that will take place in October also include the Women's Tour (October 4-9), Tour of Chongming Island (October 14-16), Tour of Guangxi keeps its original date on October 19, and Ronde van Drenthe on October 23.
"It depends on the races you like but the October calendar is good for me because I like Paris-Roubaix," Van den Broek-Blaak said.
"It's hard to say with COVID, and everything, so I try not to think too hard ahead and just take the season step-by-step, and finish the spring block. You can't plan too far head, for example, I was preparing for Paris-Roubaix and now it's out. It will also depend on how fresh you are at that time of the year, after the Olympic Games, World Championships, some riders might be either tired or excited."
Van den Broek-Blaak announced that she will retire in the spring of 2022 and become a director at SD Worx, alongside Van der Breggen. She hasn't picked an exact date of retirement but said it will likely be in April or May.
"I stop after next spring, but I'm not exactly sure of the date, yet. It wasn't a plan to make it a big deal, and I'm focused on this whole season ahead, and still competing. I'm not done and I'm super motivated for this season," Van den Broek-Blaak said.
"This offer was on the table [to become a director in 2022]. I could feel that I didn't want to race for another five or ten years. I started racing when I was 19 years old and I will be 32 when I retire, so that's a long time. I can feel that it's enough.
"It's a nice feeling and I'm relaxed about my decision to retire. I could feel that I was a bit … at my end. In my case, I want to do good or I prefer to do something else. I wasn't so motivated for all the races; for some, I was 200 per cent motivated, and for others, I don't have the fire anymore. I started thinking about what was next and this team feels like home. I have stability and that's a nice feeling."
Van den Broek-Blaak has had an exceptional career that includes victories at the one-day races Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Ronde van Drenthe, Le Samyn, Gent-Wevelgem, Vågårda, Tour of Flanders, and the World Championships.
One of the best one-day racers in the sport for a decade, Van den Broek-Blaak noted that women's cycling has changed over the years, progressed and that she is looking forward to starting a new chapter of her career as a director to help continued the sport's development.
"The difference now is so big compared to when I started ten years ago," she said. "It's almost a totally different world. I hope I can help develop the sport. I'm happy and satisfied with all of my performances. I hope that I can win a few more races, and then I will say good-bye with a really good feeling."
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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in bike racing from the grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all cycling disciplines, edits news and writes features. Currently the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten coordinates global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.
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