We were stunned when Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten won the Lotto Belgium Tour prologue just a month after her horror crash at the Rio Olympics – but today she went one better, soloing to overall victory on the final stage of the four day race.
The Orica-AIS rider suffered multiple fractures to her back and a concussion when she crashed last month, but clearly she’s a hard rider to knock back.
Van Vleuten won the 4.4km Prologue on Tuesday, completing the course at an average speed of 48.6km per hour. When we first wrote up our report, we were buzzing so much from her success we initially missed off the word 'Prologue' - titling our article 'Annemiek van Vleuten wins Lotto Belgium Tour One Month after Rio Crash'. We corrected the title within minutes, so unless you live on Twitter you probably didn't notice. But it turns out we weren't completely wrong - just 3 days early!
The first road stage on Wednesday covered 121km and there were several cobbled sections, though the terrain was largely flat. Though there were plenty of breakaway attempts, the race came down to a sprint which was scooped up by Lucinda Brand (Rabo Liv) with Barbara Guarischi (Canyon//SRAM) second and Marianne Vos (Rabo Liv) third.
Following that race, Canyon//SRAM's Guarischi was obviously gunning for the win, but accepted second happy that she was improving - saying: "That was made easier by Alexis' work. When the team decided to sprint for me, everyone believed it. I felt safe behind them and I knew that they would bring me to the last point. Tiff was my last rider, she took the last corner great. When I started I saw the wheel of Brand next to me. I pushed hard and did the best I could. Last week in Holland Ladies Tour I was beaten in the sprint by bike lengths, and today was half a wheel so it's a good sign."
On Thursday, the second of two fairly flat road races was run over 107km. Later reports told us that there had been issues with a lack of marshals, and that large sections of the race had to be neutralised – not something we want to hear following a major pro race. Regardless, the finish came down to a sprint – which likely would have been the outcome – neutralisation or not. This time it was Vos who took the win, with long time sprint rival Giorgia Bronzini (Wiggle High5) in second and Lotte Kopecky (Lotto Soudal Ladies) third.
Bronzini told us later that she'd been ill in the lead up, and felt she'd done her best. Describing the final in her own words, she said: “In the end I asked the help of Elisa and Emma to move me up, and I chose Vos’ wheel, which should be the best one in that kind of final. We made sure that I was in her wheel, and we also made sure that Emma was next to me in the final to be sure that the other teams couldn’t close me down. That didn’t happen, because we were in a line in the last kms. So I was in Vos’ wheel, and when she started her sprint she started so aggressively that we had a gap to the others until the finish line."
The final race – held today – was significantly hillier than the others and covered 97km over several circuits of the same course. The race finished on the steep slop of the Muur van Geraardsbergen. Any climb with ‘berg’ in the name is one to be aware of.
On the second ascent of the key climb, Van Vleuten made her move with Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle High5), eventually dropping Longo Borghini to ride away solo. By the final kilometre, she had a lead of over a minute – giving her plenty of time to enjoy cheers from the crowds.
Behind her, Marta Bastianelli (Ale' Cipollini) grabbed hold of second place whilst Kaat Hannes (Lensworld-Zannata) was third. The result boosted Van Vleuten into the top spot on GC, where she finished the leader – ahead of Vos in second and Brand in third.
Next - the women's peloton moves to Spain for La Madrid Challenge - the final round of the Women's World Tour for 2016. TWC writer Hannah Troop will be there to watch and cover the race - so stay tuned!