Chantal Blaak rounded out the Ronde van Vlaanderen podium in Oudenaarde on Sunday. Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team backed Blaak in the reduced bunch sprint that determined the winner of round five of the UCI Women’s WorldTour.
“I’m disappointed with the result of course, but that’s normal,” said sport director Danny Stam. “I think we did an excellent race. We took the race in our hands. We were aggressive. In my opinion, we dominated the race.”
The race came to life over the Kapelmuur in Geraardsbergen at the 94 kilometre mark. There had been attacks, small splits, and a handful of early break attempts, but nothing with staying power. The climb up the Muur – the seventh of 12 on the menu – marked a shift in tone, pace and intention.
Rozanne Slik (Sunweb) slipped away solo from a 50-rider selection that formed over the Kapelmuur. Counter-attacks in her wake helped the reduced peloton keep her at a manageable distance. Slik’s solo effort came to an end up the Kanarieberg.
Kasia Niewiadoma (WM3) countered Slik’s catch. 2016 Ronde van Vlaanderen winner Lizzie Deignan marked the danger move. The pair were joined by UCI Women’s WorldTour leader Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5), Ashleigh Moolman Paiso (Cervelo-Bigla) and Elena Cecchini (CANYON//SRAM). The group managed only the smallest of advantages before a stretched out and slimmed down bunch tagged onto their wheels.
Thirty riders remained in contention amongst the leaders, including all six Boels-Dolmans riders.
The pace remained high as the bunch headed to the Kruisberg, and on lower slopes of the tenth climb, Amy Pieters pushed the pace further. Her work set-up Anna van der Breggen to jump. Longo Borghini, Niewiadoma and Annemiek van Vleuten (ORICA-SCOTT) followed, forming what looked like the potential race-winning move. Initially the quartet traded pulls and the gap grew to just beyond the half-minute mark.
Behind Van der Breggen’s breakaway, Sunweb set a furious pace on the front of a 15-rider chase group. Eventually, on orders from the team car, Van der Breggen stopped working. The lack of cooperation spelled the end of the breakaway.
“We had the break of four with Anna in it, but I wasn’t sure that Anna would win the sprint from the four,” said Stam. “I told her not to ride with the group. They got them back on the last kilometre.”
Van der Breggen and Deignan led out Blaak on the right side of the road. Rivera jumped on the left side just beyond the 300 metre sign. Blaak immediately followed suit. Late surges by Van Vleuten, Gracie Elvin (ORICA-SCOTT) and Lotte Kopecky (Lotto Soudal Ladies) made the podium difficult to call. Rivera had won but the lesser podium positions were too close to call. It turned out Elvin had slotted into second and Blaak in third.
“We played Chantal’s card in the sprint, and she got beaten,” said Stam. “I’m really happy with how they raced. I think we showed how strong we are even if we didn’t win.”
With the all-important Ardennes week looming, Stam remains optimistic.
“I’m confident, but I’ve been confident the whole time,” he said. “You have to deal with injuries and people get sick. It’s all a part of it. We managed. We’ve been managing. I’ve had confidence the whole time.”