The European racing season kicked off on Saturday with a very chilly Omloop het Nieuwsblad, won by Australia's Tiffany Cromwell. Sarah Connolly caught up with her to get the inside story
“It was very cold at the start and you can waste so much energy if you don't stay warm enough, so I was wrapped up like a ninja. But I was feeling good, quietly confident and pretty excited for the race."
At the Omloop het Nieuwsblad sign-on, 24-year old Australian Tiffany Cromwell was a rider in disguise, hiding from the -4ºC cold. With her black neckwarmer pulled up to the bottom of her sunglasses, and her hat pulled down over her eyebrows, she was cycling’s equivalent of the Invisible Man, giving nothing away and refusing to surrender even a centimetre of skin to the vicious cold.
“At least it’s not raining" was the mantra of the morning, as riders prepared for the first race of the European season. The scent of embrocation wafted up off the startline, and itwasn’t just the cold that was making riders shiver – it was also nerves.
Omloop het Nieuwsblad is an important race for so many reasons. The climbs, including Kluisberg, Paterberg and Molenberg, and the cobbled sections like the Padestaat and the Lange Munte, are legends of the Spring Classics season. Then, it’s the first big day race, a chance to see how riders and teams have prepared over the winter. And in two weeks, the road World Cup begins in the Netherlands, followed by a month full of huge races, including the Ronde van Vlaanderen on these very roads.
Cromwell may have been hiding at the start, but she was anything but invisible in the race, going on to win in a beautiful example of Orica-AIS tactics. The Australian-based team started as the one to bear, with both Loes Gunnewijk, the Dutch Classics specialist who won the race last year, and Swedish superstar Emma Johansson, who won in 2010 and 2011. They’d shown how well they can work together in the Tour of Qatar, and this was a course made for their skills. Cromwell told us all about how the race played out.
“It's a race I love and one I had targeted for myself. The team plan was to use all our strengths, have numbers in the moves and be aggressive, staying true to our style of racing.
“The plan was to have Sugeun Gu, Spratty, Jessie Maclean and Gracie Elvin work early and through the middle of the race to be there to help keep Loes, Emma and me out of trouble and to give us a clear run into the Côte de Trieu, as in previous years this section through to the Paterberg has always been the decisive section, and being in good position into it is vital.
“From there it was about assessing the situation seeing how many numbers we still had in the front and forcing a hard race to either create a break we were confident we could win from, or if it was to come down to a bunch kick we were backing Emma."
Cromwell and GreenEdge
Cromwell joined Orica when the GreenEdge project started last season. She had been a rising star of 2009, and it was no surprise she was signed to Skyter Shipping for 2010, alongside recognised superstars of the peloton, including 2008 World Champions Nicole Cooke and Amber Neben.
But then Skyter pulled out their sponsorship, and the team collapsed too near the start of the season for riders to get berths on trade teams. A year with the Australian national team was followed by signing for Lotto for 2011, but she never clicked there and was released from her contract and moved to Hitec for the end of the season.
Racing with Orica in 2012 provided Cromwell with a fresh start, and a chance to show what we knew she was capable of. Riding as a domestique her ruthless attacks on the cobbles in Ronde van Vlaanderen caused the decisive break the peloton and set up her team-mate Judith Arndt for the win. Her 109km solo attack that gave her a win in the biggest women’s stage race of the year, the Giro Donne. With a strong season under her belt and a good start in Qatar this year, she was ready to take on the European races.
Staying out of trouble
“It was a bit of a strange race," she said after Het Nieuwsblad. “It seemed to take a long time before we really got down to business and it became very aggressive. As always, the first 50 kilometres are about keeping out of trouble and avoiding all the silly crashes, though it didn't feel too nervous this year. I think the strong head and cross winds throughout the race made things difficult, and people were less enticed to help drive the breaks. I was feeling strong for most the day.
“The first sign was on the Côte de Trieu, when I took over from my team mates and led it up the steeper parts for Emma, but then the first point when I thought I was possibly in a move that could stick was when I bridged across to Rossella Ratto (Hitec) without knowing that I had opened a gap on the group."
Ratto and Cromwell were caught, but this race is all about attrition, and only the toughest can survive to the end. It’s not only the eight climbs and the five cobbled sections that splinter the peloton, it’s the straight sections where riders are battered by the winds.
With every attack, the number of riders who could keep up became fewer and fewer, until in the final 30km there were only 14 riders left – Cromwell, Gunnewijk, Johansson and Australian champion Gracie Elvin from Orica; 2010 Ronde van Vlaanderen and road world cup winner Annemiek van Vleuten, Roxanne Knetemann and USA national champion Megan Guarnier from Rabobank-Liv/Giant; Chantal Blaak, Claudia Häusler, Shelley Olds (Tibco-To The Top); Ellen van Dijk, the Specialized-lululemon rider whose early attacks made the Olympic road race so exciting from the start; former world champion Marta Bastianelli, and two young talents to watch out for, Elisa Longo Borghini (Hitec) and Anna van der Breggen (Sengers). At this point, Cromwell was assessing the situation, ready to improvise and take any advantage she could.
“After the Lunge Munte cobbles I thought perhaps it's going to be a day where it isn't a small break that wins the race but the winner would come from this group. We still had four riders, and with a couple of good sprinters there we wanted to take our chances. All of us, Emma, Loes, Gracie and me all took it in turns attacking and small gaps would appear but it kept coming back.
“Finally, on my last attack I knew I had someone on my wheel but I pushed hard for a little bit and looked back and noticed we had a good gap and only Megan Guarnier was with me. When the gap started to grow and we only had 5kms to go, I thought that this was it, it was going to be the winning move and I was pushing pretty hard to make it stick all the way to the finish."
After 125km in temperatures that never got above 0.5°C, riders can always be forgiven for making mistakes in the closing stages, but Cromwell was determined not to let all that hard work slip away, and used every ounce of knowledge about her own riding style to keep her advantage, knowing that behind her, her three team-mates would do everything they could to stop any counter-attacks. It was now all down to the two riders, each watching the other for any sign of weakness.
“You never know in a race how the other person really is feeling. Megan looked like she was pretty tired, but I wasn't sure if she was putting the poker face on me. I wanted to make the break stick so I worked pretty hard - I think I did a little bit too much work and if she was fresher I possibly would've lost the sprint because I’d been getting too excited in the break.
“Luckily it wasn't to be and right up until the final two kilometres I wasn't sure if we would stay away, but then I had to start thinking about how I can win this race. I know Megan can hold her ground quite well in a sprint and I can't always back myself. But I was feeling strong and knew where I needed to put myself in the lead in to the finish to give myself my best chance.
“Most of the time I am stronger if I come off of the wheel in the sprint so I wanted to get myself in second wheel in the final kilometre. I was able to do this but our pace did slow quite a bit and I was worried the chasers might come up quickly, but then I saw the 300m to go sign and just went for it. Shortly after starting my sprint I could see Megan didn't react too much and I knew I had it, in the final 50m I was really able to enjoy the moment, I was so happy."
As the turned the final corner to the finish-line, Cromwell sprinted to the finish, crossing the line with her arms in the air and a huge smile on her face. Her team-mate Johansson won the sprint for third place, giving her an incredible four podium finishes in a race that’s only been run eight times. With three riders in the top 10 and two on the podium, Orica had more than exceeded expectations.
“My day in the box seat"
“Really, it could have been any one of us from the team who was in that position, it just happened to be my day where I was in the box seat and I am just so happy I was able to finish the job off for the team, as we rode so well and in control of our race all day."
It’s clear that Orica is suiting Cromwell down to the ground, and that is paying off in her results. She told us what it is about the team that’s helped her develop so well.
“It has been great, the team just seems to fit me well. Coming into the team I more or less already knew what to expect as many of the riders and staff I have worked with before throughout the national program. I race best when I have specific roles or jobs, or the team has a specific plan that we want to stick to. Having the opportunity to race alongside some of the current best riders in the world, girls that are stronger then you, that pushes me, I am able to get more out of myself and ultimately improve as a rider. It just has a nice vibe, it's a good group and a team that backs one another and that is what I need."
Of course, this is just the first race of the year, and there’s a long season ahead for Cromwell. She wants to take this strong start as just the beginning, and has big plans for what’s next.
“This year it is all about stepping up and chasing wins with the team, being a rider the team can rely on to be there at the business end of the race as a card to play in the final. I certainly want to target a few of the big one day races and World Cups. The early season classics are big goals, Het Nieuwsblad was one and now I will look towards the Trofeo Binda and Flanders. The Giro Donne has always been special for me and a race I like to target. Every year it is different and it will be interesting to see the parcours and how our team will look to chase GC, but it would be great to improve on last years overall result. Then towards the end of the season I will look towards the GP Plouay and of course the big goal for the year is the World Championships in Florence. Australia is stepping up every year and our team is getting stronger, it is a super tough course this year and a beautiful course too so we'll see, but I'm hoping for a big year with the Orica-AIS girls."
Those are huge goals, but Cromwell has shown she is ready to work her heart out for her team and herself. She has the determination and talent to make it, and it will be exciting to watch what happens next.