Racing round-up: The pros take on road and mountain biking

It’s been an incredibly busy week of women’s cycling, with huge competitions in both Europe and the USA.

Three races in five days for the European peloton, starting with the mid-point of one of the most important competitions of the year – the Road World Cup. Certainly a busy week for Sarah Connolly, our pro women’s commentator.

Flèche Wallonne

Like the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the Flèche Wallonne is in another league, when it comes to women’s day races.  One of the famous Monuments of the Spring Classics calendar, it’s one occasion when the women race on the same course as the men, in front of the same crowds – and just as in the men’s race, the finale is the famous Mur de Huy.

The Mur de Huy is a legendary climb in the world of cycling – 128m climb over 1.3km, with an average gradient of 9.3%, but with super-steep turns as the road winds up the hill – up to 26% at the steepest point.  Brutal, but exhilarating – it’s one of the climbs cyclists dream of riding, and the narrow road is always lined with cheering fans, which helps turn pain into motivation.

The Mur is at the end of a 66km lap, the last of six categorised climbs on a course that winds through the hills of Wallonia.  There are hardly any completely flat sections – and the roads are narrow and twisting for most of the rolling route.  It was a beautiful Spring day last Wednesday, probably the first sunny day the women have raced in, after two months of icy winter races.

The favourite to win Flèche Wallonne was the World Cup leader, Marianne Vos, having won this stage four times previously.

The race itself is all about the Mur.  All the early attacks and breakaways in the first lap lead up to the first climb – with riders pulling out, dropped off the back, before they even reached Huy for the first time – and then that first climb completely shattered the peloton.

This really sorted out the race contenders, with all the big names in a select group at the front, while their team-mates and rivals chased back on, desperate to get back into contention.  Riders who didn’t want to go wheel-to-wheel with the favourites tried to jump out of the front group – but there was nothing serious until Tatiana Guderzo attacked on the penultimate climb – a serious threat!

Guderzo, riding in the fluorescent yellow of Cipollini-Giordana, is a formidable climber, and if she could get to the bottom of the Mur solo, she could easily take the race.  The peloton cooperated to chase her down, as the course ran along the river Meuse – Guderzo’s lead dwindling, until she was caught just as the peloton turned into Huy for the last time.

Here the race really began, with a battle for position as the riders turned onto the Mur.  They raced, neck and neck, up the Mur, no one able to get away – until Marianne Vos, who knows this hill so well, attacked with 150m to go, as it began to flatten out.

Elisa Longo Borghini and Ashleigh Moolman leapt to follow her, and while they couldn’t catch Vos, fought each other right to the line – Longo Borghini winning the sprint for second position by half a tyre’s width.  Just behind them was Anna van der Breggen, a young Dutch woman riding for Sengers, who had a break-through season last year, and will surely score her first big win soon – and in fifth, Emma Johansson, finally breaking her run of podium places.

It was a great podium – Vos, the first rider to ever win this race five times. Longo Borghini cementing herself as one of the biggest young talents out there, and moving into third in the World Cup rankings, and Moolman, proudly celebrating being the first South African, and rider from the African continent, to get onto the World Cup podium.

Vrouwen EPZ Omloop van Borsele

After that, you’d think everyone would need to take a break, but racing never stops.  Last weekend is a traditional sprint weekend, with the EPZ Omloop van Borsele on the Saturday – and although the GP Stad Roeselare was cancelled this year due to funding issues, the Dwars door de Westhoek moved into its place on Sunday.

Borsele is in Zeeland in the Netherlands, a festival of Dutch cycling, with a three-stage junior women’s race and races for junior and u23 men, alongside the 30th edition of the elite women’s race.  It’s completely flat, but always with strong winds off the North Sea that more than make up for the lack of climbs and a notorious corner that always causes problems on every lap.  True to form the corner took pre-race favourite and dominant Dutch sprinter, Kirsten Wild, out of contention early on in the race.

Racing in the wind requires specific skills, and the Dutch riders excel at using them to attack and break up the peloton and almost from the start, there was an 18-rider group that became smaller and smaller, as attacks took their toll, until two riders were left alone – Loes Gunnewijk of ORICA-AIS, and Vera Koedooder of Sengers.

Koedooder, who spent last year focussing on the track, had been involved in the big crash at 5 km, but had come back, only to be held up by another crash, before chasing and catching the front group, attacking over and over until it was just her and Gunnewijk. It came down to a two-woman sprint, which Koedooder won, with a broken chainstay and a slightly bent rear wheel.

A drama-filled race, and luckily there seem to be no lasting injuries.  Lucinda Brand, of Rabobank, had been chasing solo to come in third, 27 seconds behind them, and Chloe Hosking (Hitec) came 4th, win enough points to put her in the lead of the Dutch Topcompetitie competition.

The junior race was won by Nicky Zijlaard, a young Dutch talent from a cycling family – her grandfather, Joop Zijlaard, was a famous derny-bike motor pacer on the six-day track racing circuit, and her uncle, Micheal, is the husband and coach of Dutch Olympic and Worlds track and road superstar of the early 2000s, Leontien van Moorsel, managing for many years the road cycling team AA Drink.  Nicky, at 17-years-old, is shaping up to add to the family legacy, winning the Stage 1 ITT, and although Belgian Lotte Kopecky won the stage 2 and 3 road races, she couldn’t take the title from Zijlaard.

Dwars door de Westhoek

On Sunday it was back to Belgium, and the Dwars door de Westhoek – a race that loops around itself, with a short-sharp climb and steep descent, ending on four flattish, cobbled laps.  The climbs whittled down the peloton, and crashes took riders out of contention. Spotting an opportunity Megan Guarnier of Rabobank attacked hard on the last lap. It looked as though the American National Champion might make it all the way home, until she was caught at 4km to go.

Guarnier’s team-mate, the former multiple Junior World Champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, tried again in the final stages, but the riders were ready for her and Belgian track star, Jolien d’Hoore (Lotto Belisol), and veteran of the peloton, Martine Bras (Boels-Dolmans) went with her – d’Hoore outsprinting Bras for the win, with Ferrand-Prévot in third.

Sea Otter Classic

While all this was happening in Europe, in the USA all cycling eyes were on California, and the Sea Otter Classic, a huge festival of cycling, with both men’s and women’s stage races, and competitions for every kind of Mountain Biking.  In the 4-stage road race, Jade Wilcoxson of Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies had been leading until the final stage, when Exergy TWENTY16 rode a very clever race, their rider Jackie Crowell winning the stage and the General Classification.

In the downhill MTB, American Jill Kintner beat the UK’s Tracy Moseley and Dutchwoman Anneke Beerten.  But the most interesting race was going to be the Cross Country, as Marianne Vos had hopped on a ‘plane after Flèche Wallonne, heading out to race former XC World Champion Catharine Pendrel for the very first time.

Vos is a multiple World Champion on the road, track and in her favourite discipline, cyclocross, but she hasn’t ridden MTB since she was a junior, as she just didn’t have time.  However with her 2012 goals of winning the Olympic and World Championships road race met, she’s giving herself a year of trying MTB, which she always enjoyed.  She’s had a blistering start, winning her early-season races – but this was the first time she’d shape up against the major international talent.  She rode and won the Short Track course, which is much more like cyclocross, but it was the Cross Country that was the interesting race.

Against all odds, Vos won!  It is still very early season for MTB, so Pendrel won’t be at her best, and Olympic and World champion Julie Bresset is injured, but Vos’ win, with Danish rider Annika Langvad in second place, nine seconds behind her, and Pendrel in third, nearly two minutes later, was intriguing.

Will Vos be able to keep this up?  She’s dividing her time between road and MTB this year, but the World Cups will be fascinating to watch!

Headline image by AnMarton via Flickr.

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