Lizzie Armitstead did it again. Two starts in the rainbow jersey and two victories. The world champion’s win at the UCI Women’s WorldTour opener in Strade Bianche on Saturday is the fourth victory of the year for Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team.
“It’s difficult being world champion and coming to every race and being expected to win them all,” said Armitstead, who had told reporters in a pre-race press conference that Saturday’s race wasn’t a target. “I had a couple messages from friends and family saying: ‘You’ll win on Saturday. It will be a breeze.’ I won – but it wasn’t a breeze. And it wasn’t a breeze winning Nieuwsblad. It may have looked easy, but it wasn’t.”
It’s an understandable mistake to make. Armitstead isn’t only two-for-two this season. She’s also won the last four races she’s started. She closed out the 2015 season with a win at GP Plouay, which won her the World Cup series overall for the second straight year, and the Road World Championships and picked up where she left off with wins at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Strade Bianche.
Her victory in Siena came with the honour of donning the first Women’s WorldTour jersey, making her the last women to wear the (now defunct) World Cup series leader’s jersey, and the first women to wear the Women’s WorldTour leader’s jersey.
“We’ve already started the season really well,” Armitstead said. “The Hour Record was fantastic. Already three victories in Europe and one in Qatar. It’s difficult to improve on that. Our biggest challenge is staying on the top.”
Armitstead’s rise to the top has been bolstered by an incredibly strong Boels-Dolmans team, and today’s victory, like the rest, was a team effort.“The idea was that Christine and Romy would attack the first part of the race,” explained Armitstead. “They looked after the team really well until the first gravel section. Christine did a really good turn to get me to the front. I was struggling a little bit in the back, and Christine did a massive pull to get me back where I needed to be.”
“No one really took it on when we got to the third gravel section,” added Armitstead. “I said to Nikki: ‘You have to attack.’ I wanted to break apart the race because we need an aggressive race for the team to perform well. Nikki attacked, and she got away solo.”
Harris, one of two new signings for the team this year, has proved more than capable in the early spring races. She joined Boels-Dolmans for a block of four races beginning at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad following her best cyclocross season to date. There was question about if she would be able to transition easily from the mud to the road (or gravel, in this case), and she’s answered that question with a resounding yes this week, playing an integral role in all three team wins in the last eight days.
Harris’ escape sparked a reaction. Forty kilometres from the finish, the British cyclocross champion had 30-seconds over Lucinda Brand (Rabo-Liv). A chase group of eight was at 58-seconds. The heavy course was taking its toll on a tiring peloton.
“I had hoped someone would go with Nikki when I told her to attack,” Armitstead noted. “Lucinda eventually caught her. Each gravel section, it was an elimination race, and only the strongest survived.”
The lead group swelled to 40 riders with 30 kilometres left to race. And Rabo-Liv, who had four in the front, deployed a powerful one-two punch with Anna van der Breggen and Kasia Niewiadoma. Van der Breggen attacked first. Niewiadoma countered the catch.
“I went with both attacks,” said Armitstead. “The move with Kasia stuck, and Emma [Johansson] made it across to us. She just sat on because she was saying it was for [teammate] Elisa [Longo Borghini] behind.”
“Kasia worked really hard, and I worked really hard,” Armitstead continued. “It was good in the final that Emma didn’t win. I was a little concerned about how fresh she was going to be.”
Coming out the last sector of gravel, the leading trio had one minute over what remained of the shattered front group. With only a 12-kilometre run-in to Sienna remaining, Armitstead eyed Niewiadoma, who she worried would slip away on the final climb.
“I knew that Kasia’s best option was to attack me on the final climb,” said Armitstead. “I knew she would go early, and I knew when she did, it was going to be hard for me to hold her wheel. I was so focused on her attack.”
As expected, Niewiadoma did lift the pace on the climb, but her efforts weren’t enough to dislodge Armitstead, who held steady to the wheel ahead. “I stayed on her wheel until 100 metres before the archway,” Armitstead explained. “That’s when I attacked, and I stayed away.”
“Every win is special, but when you’ve got the world champion’s jersey on, it makes it a little bit more special,” Armitstead added. “I’m really proud, and I’m really proud of the team. We’re one of the strongest teams, and I think we showed that today, and we showed it on the best stage. The Women’s WorldTour is hopefully going to be a better stage for women’s cycling, and we showed again that we can perform on the biggest level."