We’re still struggling to shake off winter in Europe, but the peloton battled through the cold and rain, with two major races this weekend, despite the awful weather. Sarah Connolly reports.
The most important was the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, a race in its 39th year and second round of the Road World Cup, on the shores of Lake Maggiore in Italy. It’s a 54km loop, and then 4 laps of a 17km circuit, with a thigh-biting hill and some treacherous hairpins on the descent at the end, before swooping into Cittiglio for an uphill finish.
It usually rains there at this time of year, but Sunday was particularly bad. Freezing weather, wind, fog on the hill, and riders bundled up at the start.
Despite all this, there had been early attacks. The first real move was when time trial experts Shara Gillow (ORICA-AIS) and Lotto’s Ashleigh Moolman; who must have had a shock, arriving from the South African summer, attacked on the climb on the loop, with Jessie Daams (Boels-Dolmans) and Karol-Ann Canuel (Vienne Futuroscope). These four managed to stay away as the race turned back towards Cittiglio, but through the first of the small laps, the peloton was watching and waiting. These four are very strong riders, so they wouldn’t be allowed to escape if the main contenders could help it. At this point, the chase had split the race into a number of groups on the road, but all the big names were still in the front and they pulled in the breakaway at the start of the second small lap.
Almost immediately, attacks started again, and this was where the race really got going. The breakaway riders hadn’t given up. Jessie Daams lead over the climb, and then Ash Moolman attacked again, this time with ORICA-AIS’s Amanda Spratt. They were caught, and then it was time for Elisa Longo Borghini’s turn, attacking, with Spratt following again.
Longo Borghini, who rides for Hitec Products UCK, suffered a difficult start to the race, puncturing on the big loop and getting stuck behind the cars. When her team mate Rachel Neylan rescued her, giving her a wheel, they then had to chase back while the speed at the front increased as the peloton kept the long breakaway in site. But these are her home roads. The young Italian lives just across the lake from the course, and her friends and family were waiting at the finish in the driving rain. She’s only 21, but last year’s season, where she won the Best Young Rider jersey in the Giro Donne, and came third in the Road World Championships, have shown her what she’s capable of. She never takes the easy path. Last year she was the only Italian on a non-home country pro team. When she’s not riding, she’s working hard on her degree in Communication Sciences, and rather than wait for the action to unfold, once she was back, she made her mark.
She and Spratt rode hard together and then on the penultimate climb, Longo Borghini attacked again, crossing the finish line into the final lap ahead. At this point, with only around a minute and a half, it felt like she was bound to be caught, especially with Road and Olympic Champion, Marianne Vos (Rabobank-Liv/Giant) working hard to try to pull her back. But Longo Borghini’s lead actually extended, by up to two minutes. It soon became clear she was really going to do this, become the first Italian to win the race since 2000, win the first ever Road World Cup for Hitec. She crossed the line looking ecstatic and exhausted, soaking wet but utterly thrilled.
Amanda Spratt had carried on behind her, the tough Australian never giving up in her attempts to reach the leader and among the chase group, the drama was all about Vos. She’d won the first round of the World Cup, the Ronde van Drenthe. Could she do enough to keep her leader’s jersey, or even get to the podium? Of course, no other team was going to help her and with riders attacking off the front, forcing her to chase them, they actively made it harder.
Then two of Vos’ biggest rivals escaped, Ellen van Dijk (Specialized-lululemon), who came second behind Vos in Drenthe, and Emma Johansson (ORICA-AIS), who in her seven 2013 European races so far, had never finished off the podium. Johansson is an expert in these kinds of races, but Van Dijk later tweeted that she had surprised herself. Known as a time trialler and a sprinter, getting over all the hills with energy to spare was an impressive feat. The pair pulled away, catching Spratt, who immediately began working just as hard for her team-mate as she had for herself, and they raced into the town, Johansson out-sprinting Van Dijk, a minute and a half behind the winner, with Spratt following them, barely staying on her bike from the effort. Chantal Blaak (TIBCO) won the bunch sprint for fifth. Marianne Vos had to settle for sixth, but kept her World Cup lead for the time being.
The other race of the weekend, Gent-Wevelgem, swapped the hills of Italy for the cobbles of Belgium, 112km, one for the sprinters, but still, awful weather. It had been an unlucky start for Rabobank-Liv/Giant, their van crashing on the icy roads on the way to the race, but they made up for it by attacking hard. The peloton was split into fragments almost from the start, with vicious crosswinds ensuring that the smallest gap could suddenly be a chasm, and any rider not paying attention could be dropped straight away, with all riders behind them suddenly having to fight to stay in the race.
At 70km, it was Kirsten Wild of Argos-Shimano who attacked on the Kemmelberg climb. A surprising move, as Wild is known as a ‘trackie’ and a pure sprinter. But she epitomises Dutch-style sprinting. She’s super-strong, tactically brilliant, and relished the cobbles and the bad weather. Wild was caught by two Rabobank riders, then more riders bridged across, until there were 14 riders left in contention.
Now the race really began. Riders attacked off the front, only to be caught and attacks attempted again. Wild’s team-mate, Amy Pieters, used the tactics that make Wild so hard to beat, attacking with four others, leaving the bunch with the choice of letting them go for the win, or chasing them down, giving Wild an easier ride to the line. This break was caught with 2km to go, and then Wild showed why she dominates these races, making her sprint for the win look easy. Rabobank’s Sanne van Paassen, better known as a cyclo-cross rider, showed her road power; coming in second, with Kelly Druyts (TopSport Vlaanderen) completed the podium.
After all that excitement, there’s only a week to pause for breath and recover, as next Sunday is the race everyone wants to win – the Ronde van Vlaanderen. This isn’t just the third World Cup race; it’s the Tour of Flanders, a race full of history and romance. The cobbled climbs will be lined with spectators, and anyone who even finishes will have achieved something huge. We’re definitely into Spring Classics territory. Now, just imagine the feelings of the riders as they prepare for this one. I can hardly wait!