The UCI Women's Road World Cup will head deep into the Netherlands on Saturday for its third round, the Ronde van Drenthe, the home turf of series leader Annamiek Van Vleuten who comes fresh off her victory in the Tour of Flanders.
It's the 10th year of the race and the fifth year of its inclusion in the World Cup, so riders are well acquainted with the event's obstacles: namely narrow, twisting roads, a section of slippery pavé and three trips up the only notable climb in sight - the VAMberg, a covered over landfill.
While a largely flat race, the 132.8km Ronde van Drenthe parcours is not normally a race for the sprinters. The VAMberg, which averages nearly 10% and is 380m long, comes with 13km to go, and each year has provided a launching pad for a small group to escape.
This year all eyes will be on Van Vleuten, who holds a 24 point lead over Garmin-Cervélo's Emma Pooley and a further six points on Swedish champion Emma Johansson in the World Cup. Johansson will be heavily marked come Sunday not only for her position in the World Cup but as a past winner (2009). Pooley normally skips the race, which does not favour her strengths.
Flanders runner-up and fourth-placed rider in the World Cup, Tatiana Antoshina (Gauss) is not currently listed on the provisional start list, but there are still four more women waiting in the wings who can inherit the leader's jersey with a victory on Sunday.
One of them is local hero Marianne Vos (Nederland Bloeit), who skipped the Trofeo Alfredo Binda for the track world championships, and then took third in Flanders.
Vos has never won her home World Cup round, but with her teammate in the World Cup lead, tactics could play into her favour. She showed strong form in the Drentse 8 Dwingeloo, winning the bunch sprint over American Shelley Olds and Johansson.
The Nederland Bloeit team also includes last year's winner Loes Gunnewijk, who last year surprised a select group with an early sprint. Van Vleuten finished second here last year, but with Vos sitting eighth overall in the World Cup, the team could decide to keep the race together for a chance to have two riders at the top of the World Cup rankings.
Another rider in line for the World Cup lead is HTC-Highroad's Judith Arndt, who sits fifth after top ten finishes in the first two World Cups. Her team was buoyed by the victory of Adrie Visser in the Energiewacht Tour and is showing good form for Sunday's challenge.
Visser is also a former winner of the Ronde van Drenthe (2007) and will start alongside sprinter Ina Teutenberg, Arndt, and support riders Ellen van Dijk, Charlotte Becker, and Emilia Fahlin.
Belgian Grace Verbeke (Topsport Vlaanderen 2012 - Ridley Team) currently sits sixth in the rankings, and will need a good deal of daylight between herself and Van Vleuten to take over the jersey.
Not to be counted out is Martine Bras (Dolmans Landscaping), seventh in the standings. The Dutch rider was aggressive in the Energiewacht Tour, where she claimed the overall sprint classification.
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