The women’s calendar has been focussed on day races and the Spring Classics, but last week it was time for the first stage race, the Energiewacht Tour in the Groningen province of the Netherlands.
The first stage of the Energiewacht Tour was awash with bad luck, the video below highlights that if one thing went wrong, everything went wrong. Sarah Connolly shares the high’s and lows of the season’s first stage race.
Dutch women’s racing is notoriously hard. Although the Energiewacht courses are flat, each road race laps around one of the towns – so it’s easy to think they’re more leisurely than those races with climbs and descents. However, what these races lack in hills, they make up for in wind. Winds, that if on your side, can make you feel like you’re flying, or if against you, can make it feel like you’re cycling through treacle, struggling just to go forward. The Dutch riders have grown up riding in this wind, they know how to ride in echelons to manage cross-winds, how to use them to attack and break the race into small groups.
As the Energiewacht races are flat, they favour the teams with big sprinters, meaning other teams will be doing everything they can to foil them. Forming escape groups and utilising the domestiques to attack continuously. These races are known for their continual action, the riders have to be watching and judging everything, and the best way to do that is to ride as near to the front as possible.
If you have a peloton of 140 riders, they can’t all be up there, so it’s a constant battle for positioning. Add into the mix, cobbled paths, technical sections through the towns, and rigorously enforced time cuts*, any rider who ends up as a contender towards the end of the race is a really star of the sport.
Excitingly for the sport, this year there was a 3-stage Junior girls’ race alongside the elite women. Any race that gives the young up-and-coming riders the chance to experience the same roads and racing as the stars of the sport deserves a lot of credit.
All of that is a very long introduction to the race and after the first stage; you might be thinking that all of the praise wasn’t justified. The organisers were hit by bad luck at every turn, having to stop the race when a section was misdirected, a lorry driving onto the course and the race being halted when a canal bridge was raised and shouldn’t have been.
The first stage had been all about attacks, the stoppages brought groups together that had been separated. As riders protested, the race was restarted with enforced time-gaps from before the bridge. A group of 23 riders hit the final lap with a 22 second lead, taking all of their frustrations out on the bikes. It finally came down to an early sprint by Kirsten Wild of Argos-Shimano, against an all-Dutch escape group – Ellen van Dijk (Specialized-lululemon), Loes Gunnewijk (ORICA-AIS) and Iris Slappendel (Rabobank-Liv/Giant) and anyone who finished in that second group on the road, 1:11 behind the leaders was already out of contention.
Stage 2 on Thursday was less chaotic, but just as hard. More attacks, more small groups – and a final selection of 13 riders, ending in a bunch sprint. Wild won again, ahead of Hitec’s Australian sprinter Chloe Hosking, who was racing hard to catch up after missing the break on the first stage.
As Friday was a two-stage day, with an Individual Time Trial in the morning and a 77.3km road race in the afternoon, everything was set to change.
The Time Trial was a circular course, starting and finishing in Winsum, 21.1km, long enough to cause some real damage. All eyes were on Ellen van Dijk, a time trial powerhouse, who’s on fantastic form at the moment, finishing on the podium of all three Road World Cups so far this year. After the sprint stages of the previous two days, it was good to see the TT stars having the spotlight, with ORICA’s Shara Gillow setting down the first big time of the day, 29:15.37 – only Van Dijk’s team-mate, the young German track star Lisa Brennauer beating it, with 29:03.37. No surprises that Van Dijk, rode the course at 44.9 kph, to finish with 28:12.37, phenomenal.
The top ten of the stage made really interesting reading, with two teams making up the top seven: four riders from Specialized-lululemon – Van Dijk, Breannauer, Trixi Worrack and Carmen Small; and three from ORICA, Gillow, Gunnewijk and Gracie Elvin. Marijn de Vries was 8th for Lotto Belisol, Wild in 9th, and Team USA rider Kristin McGrath in 10th place.
Van Dijk’s win took her easily into the General Classification lead, and Brennauer into second place, with Loes Gunnewijk 1:18 behind her, Kirsten Wild at 1:41. The challenge for Specialized was to race hard and make sure Van Dijk was in every break – while for every one else, it was to try to drop her, and hard!
Stage 4 was the longest of the race, at 134.6km, four laps with some tricky technical sections including a stretch along a canal. This was the chance for teams that hadn’t shone so far to go for some glory, and for the General Classification riders to fight each other all the way.
It was non-stop attacks from the start; with European u23 champion Evelyn Arys getting into attacks and groups over and over, one with Hosking and one with Gillow – but, once again, Argos-Shimano had the race under control, doing all they could to bring Wild back up the GC. Charlotte Becker had got into a break, and then attacked over and over, before leading her team-mate Wild out for another beautiful win, sprinting from a group of nine. None of this could shake Van Dijk, who had stayed with Wild throughout the race, finishing the stage second, with Visser in third. Wild was the queen of the sprints, but Van Dijk looked like she had secured her overall win!
The final stage showed that the big teams had accepted this, as an eight-woman break attacked early on, and, as it included no GC contenders, was allowed to stay away. This break had some interesting riders in it – Valentina Carretta of Cipollini-Giordana had tweeted the night before that she was really not enjoying Dutch racing, and Sungeun Gu, the first Korean pro in the peloton, racing her first European season with ORICA, had tweeted how she had only finished Stage 4 on willpower – so it was good to see them deciding to deal with it by getting into that break, and racing hard. Carretta worked the break well, and was a worthy stage winner, ahead of Gu and Boels-Dolmans’ Romy Kasper.
All the big GC riders finished together – Van Dijk the overall winner, Loes Gunnewijk finishing second, and Wild in third. A great race for Specialized-lululemon, despite Trixi Worrack crashing out earlier in the race with a suspected broken collarbone. Specialized are such a strong team, but this is the third major rider taken out with injuries so far this season – it’s even more credit to them that they’re performing so well.
After all that, the elite women deserve a rest! Their next race is the Ronde van Gelderland next weekend, and then the next round of the Road World Cup, the Flèche Wallonne on 17th April, before some more stage racing in the Czech Republic and Luxembourg. Make sure you keep checking back here for your weekly race updates!
Links to all of the RTL TV coverage is on the Energiewacht Tour website. The final programmes, featuring Stage 5, will be posted this evening. Tomorrow there will be a final programme, including highlights of the whole race.
*Any rider who finishes a stage in more than 10% of the winners’ time – or 25% in the Time Trial – is automatically out of the race.