You know the season is properly underway when the World Cup series starts. But can anyone challenge Marianne Vos this year? Sarah Connolly reports.
After last week’s races on three continents, the professional peloton converged on the Netherlands for the first Road World Cup of the season, the Ronde van Drenthe
Warm-up: Drentse 8
The World Cup is one of three women’s races in Drenthe, part of a festival of cycling in a region that really loves the sport. The first race was Thursday’s Drentse 8, a typically Dutch sprint. The peloton faced three laps of a figure of eight course centring on the village of Dwingeloo, with vicious cobbled sections, lanes through a National Park and a lot of racing through open farmland, where the icy winds made the racing a battle.
The big challenge in these races is positioning. There’s a peloton full of riders who want to be on the front for the cobbles and to take opportunities to attack, and the Netherlands notorious road furniture is a constant hazard. This caused a huge crash that marred the race, with one of the big favourites, Ina-Yoko Teutenberg (Specialized-lululemon), being knocked unconscious.
Teutenberg has been the top sprinter of the women’s scene in recent years, and is incredibly experienced. If she couldn’t avoid the crash, no one could. She was taken to hospital, but thankfully wasn’t too badly hurt. Her team-mates were tweeting gory photos of her smiling through her face injuries later that night.
Once the race was back underway, it was a battle between the sprint teams and the attack experts, but with a parcours like this one, it was all about the bunch finish. Rabobank-Liv/Giant’s Marianne Vos, fresh from winning the Cyprus Sunshine Cup mountain bike stage race, was right at the front, wearing the Road World Champion’s rainbow stripes for the first time since 2008, and that clearly gave her a lift.
Bronzini finished second, and Emma Johansson (ORICA-AIS) came third. This was Johansson’s fourth third place in the four European races – simultaneously a great achievement and a frustration for the Swede. But everyone knew that was just the warm-up race – all eyes were on Saturday’s Ronde van Drenthe World Cup.
Ronde Van Drenthe: the big show
The race nearly didn’t go ahead, as the Netherlands were battered by wintery weather that ended up causing Sunday’s Novilon EDRcup to be cancelled. Luckily (or maybe not so, for the riders) the snow didn’t set in until Saturday night. The morning of the race was full of rain, wind and temperatures that never got above 3°C.
The 126.6km race started with a climb of the VAMberg, one of the most quirky climbs in cycling. It’s a man-made hill that used to be a municipal rubbish dump, and this year had been raised to a metre higher. Following the climb, the race headed out through farmland, before hitting the first set of cobbles at 50km. This is always a decisive moment, and there were a lot of attacks as the race passed the second and third cobbled sections, with Boels-Dolmans’ Lizzie Armitstead and Romy Kasper doing their best to get away, but being caught by a peloton that kept splitting into groups and reforming, with riders continually shed off the back.
By the time they reached the VAMberg again, there were around 50 riders left in the race, and although Johansson and Vos, both former winners, fought up the climb, the reduced peloton stayed together over the descent and through the loop through the town of Hoogeveen.
It was on the second ascent of the VAM when the real move came. Vos, seeing her opportunity, attacked on the steepest section, and broke for freedom. She’s such an experienced rider, winning this race for the last two years, and one of the very best descenders in cycling, so she soon gained a gap.
The chase was disorganised, and once they reached the flat, Specialized-lululemon’s time trial expert Ellen van Dijk decided to put those skills into good use, catching Vos solo with 10km to go. The pair worked together, doing everything they could to gain a gap.
Emma Johansson had been caught in a crash before the final climb of the VAM, and was stuck racing without her rear mech. Only having her big ring or small hampered her over the hill, but she fought her way back to the first chasing group, then shot straight past, doing all she could to catch the Dutch pair. She came within a tantalising 15 seconds of them, with glimpses of them up the road, but they remained out of reach.
Behind her it was a group of sprinters – Kirsten Wild (Argos-Shimano), Chloe Hosking (Hitec Products UCK), Shelley Olds (Tibco) and Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans), with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Tiffany Cromwell (ORICA) and Lotto’s Marijn de Vries, who grew up in the area, and knew the rods very well.
As they entered Hoogeveen in the torrential rain, Vos and Van Dijk had the roads to themselves. Van Dijk is a superb sprinter, and Vos knew that, taking her by surprise at 500m to go, speeding past her with plenty of time to celebrate. Despite the awful conditions, she looked ecstatic, as, arms in the air, she won her third Ronde van Drenthe, and her first World Cup of the year.
Johansson crossed the line 15 seconds later – yet another third place for her. Behind her, Hosking beat Wild in the sprint for fourth.
Only 49 riders finished within the time cut, everyone of them exhausted, soaking, but able to be proud of what they achieved.
The World Cup season is underway – in two week’s time it will be the Trofeo Alfredo Binda in Italy, and then a week later, one of the biggest races of the year, the Ronde van Vlaanderen. This is just the beginning of what looks like a very exciting year.