Racing round-up: Belgian Cup, California classic, El Salvador

It’s being tipped as a breakthrough year in women’s racing and last week the season got fully underway in Belgium, the USA and El Salvador. Sarah Connolly has the details.

You know the road season has started when there’s racing on three continents!

Helicopters grounded in Belgium

The Le Samyn peloton passes through the feed zone on a cold day in Belgium. (Image by brassynn via Flickr)
The Le Samyn podium: Shelley Olds (Tibco) in no fewer than four layers. Ellen van Dijk (Specialized-lululemon) and Emma Johansson (ORICA-AIS). (Image by brassynn via Flickr)

In Europe, the Lotto Cycling Cup has started, a series of six Belgian day races and a stage race, running from February to August. On Wednesday it was Le Samyn, the women racing 37km before the same five 20km laps that concluded the men’s race.

It was a horrible day to be out riding, with the weather grounding the helicopters, so the men’s race couldn’t be televised. But that just added to the teams’ determination to make it a tough one to win.

The decisive move came on the cobbles at the start of the penultimate lap, when Ellen van Dijk, of super-team Specialized-lululemon, attacked solo.

She was chased by a formidable trio: all-rounder, Emma Johansson (ORICA-AIS); young Italian Classics star Elisa Longo Borghini (Hitec Products UCK); and American sprinter Shelley Olds (Tibco), who had crashed on the pavé before bridging across to the chase. However, their skills were no match for Van Dijk’s time trialling expertise, and after 35km riding alone, she took the win, Olds outsprinting Johansson for second.

Sunday was the second round of the Cup, the Omloop van het Hageland, which started with a 50km loop, then five laps of a 14km circuit.

The final laps had cobbles, climbs, and ended on an uphill finish, but this time none of the attack attempts could succeed, and it came down to a bunch sprint. Young New Zealander Emily Collins gave brand-new team Wiggle Honda their first win, wirth Olds and Johansson in second and third again.

This gives Johansson three third places in the three European races she’s started this year, and you just know she’s hungry to improve on that, especially with the first World Cup of the year coming up.

Stevens conquers in California

Following Van Dijk’s win on Wednesday, her team-mates racing the Merco Cycling Classic in California showed that their half of the team is just as strong. They won the first three stages. New recruit Tayler Wiles came in ahead of Specialized-lululemon veteran, Evie Stevens, in the hilly first stage; Stevens won the time trial and taking the overall lead in Stage 2; and one of the most respected, and successful riders in the women’s peloton, Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, took the stage 3 Downtown Crit.

Teute’s win wasn’t really a surprise, as she did the same thing last year, and in 2010 and 2011 won the Merco day race. Still, after all her talk of how 2012 would be the final season of her career, it’s fantastic to see she’s still sprinting her heart out.

The fourth and final stage was another road race, and the last chance for the other USA-based teams. NOW and Novartis for MS had been doing all they could all race, and this time it paid off, with Beth Newell escaping and winning with just 5 seconds on Exergy TWENTY16’s Alison Tetrick, and 20 seconds ahead of the rampaging peloton. Evie Stevens finished in the bunch, tenth on the stage, cementing her overall win. Since her career began in 2009, she’s improved significantly every year, so once she moves to Europe this week, we’ll see if this is just the first of many.

Cantele leads in El Salvador

The final block of racing has been in Central America, with the seven-stage Vuelta a El Salvador. Race favourite and former world time trial champion, Amber Neben, of Cogeas-Pasta Zara, had to pull out of racing with a bug. That allowed her big rival in the race, Noemi Cantele of BePink, to dominate, winning stages 1 and 4, and BePink the Stage 2 Team Time Trial.

Unsurprisingly, Cantele is leading the general classification, and although there are two hilly stages to race, her lead of 4:15 over her nearest rival and team-mate, Alena Amialiusik, will be hard to beat. Despite Neben’s illness, it’s not been all bad for Cogeas-Pasta Zara, as Addy Albershardt took her first season out of the Junior ranks by the scruff of the neck, ending up in a two-woman breakaway with Cantele on Stage 5 and beating the Italian in the sprint.

What on this month

With the big names of the peloton spread out around the world, we can’t really draw many conclusions from this week of racing, but all that will change as the 2013 Road World Cup starts this week. This is one of the very biggest competitions of the women’s calendar, with eight very different one-day races spread across the year.

We start in the Netherlands, with the Boels Rentals Ronde van Drenthe on Saturday 9th March. This race has one of the most quirky courses you’ll find in women’s racing It takes in narrow, cobbled lanes through forests, and three ascents of the VAMberg, a man-made hill over a former rubbish dump with a short, but very sharp climb that always causes action in the race. It’s a really exciting race, one that can be won solo, from a small group, or a bunch sprint, depending on the day. A worthy opener to the World Cup.

Ronde van Drenthe is part of a whole week of racing, with two more elite women’s races, the Dames 8 and the Novilon Eurocup, men’s races and a mass-participation ride. Rumour has it that the World Cup will be shown on Dutch television, and online, and if you can find a way to watch it, I highly recommend it, as it’s always spectacular.

The Spring Classics portion of the World Cup will continue on 24th March, with the hilly Trofeo Alfredo Binda, in Varese, Italy, and then back to Belgium for two iconic races, the Ronde van Vlaanderen (31st March) and the Flèche Wallonne (17th April).

One rider who we haven’t seen on the road so far this season, but who will be targeting those races, is 2012 World and Olympic Champion, Marianne Vos. Not content with winning her sixth cyclocross world title this year, she’s turned her sights to mountain biking, and has already won a stage race, the Cyprus Sunshine Cup in Afxentia.

It’s very early season for mountain biking, and a lot of the big names on the women’ circuit weren’t racing. Although Vos is looking to race mountain bikes for fun, the other cross-country riders should be doubling their training; there are very few things left in cycling that Vos hasn’t won, once she’s set her sights on them.

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