We sent TWC contributor Hannah Troop out to Belgium to ride the tour of Flanders, one day ahead of the pros, before interviewing the Canyon//SRAM riders in the evening after their own race on the cobbles.
Words: Hannah Troop
This weekend the Ronde van Vlaanderen celebrated its centenary year, a milestone the Flandriens would never allow to pass by without a high octane party, fuelled by plenty of beer and Euro-pop. Cycling is part of their bloodline, arrive to Belgium on two wheels and you’re welcomed with open arms. It isn’t just sport here, it’s everything, and ‘Flanders’—the Champions League Final, the Wimbledon, the Grand National of the calendar year.
Sunday saw the 13th edition of the women’s race run alongside the men’s. Covering fewer kilometres, but with no less brutality the women tackled the infamous cobbles with as much attacking spirit as their male counterparts. To be a champion on this terrain requires you to be tough as the cobblestone your body takes a battering over. Sections of pavé are upon you, at the turn of a corner, out of no-where and pack a punch. Most of them are no more than 2km long, yet leave you shaken to the core but strangely energised, like a pneumatic pounding of adrenaline.
“I was really afraid, but it was ok, it’s our job." - Barbara Guarischi
Hitting a cobbled climb is mind over matter and primarily a test of how long you can hold your nerve before admitting defeat, unclipping and continuing by foot. For Barbara Guarischi of the Canyon//SRAM team; racing this terrain only a month after shoulder surgery from a previous race crash commanded respect. Shrugging she smiled and told me: “I was really afraid, but it was ok, it’s our job."
Riding the sportive the day before the race gave an insight into what the pros have to endure. At the start there’s a twitchiness, people not wanting to be dropped, excitability can lead to lapses in concentration and in a split second the sound of crashing carbon and metal leaves nerves jangled. Like on our ride on the Saturday, the women’s race saw a crash within the first 40km, everyone was back up within seconds, unscathed and on again. Concentration heightened.
A friend likened riding the sportive to being in a boxing match
A friend likened riding the sportive to being in a boxing match—the first 100km are the body blows, and the second 130km when the cobbles truly kick in, is like taking the head shots. Add to the mix fighting for position and race tactics gives another layer of admiration for the pros.
In post race interviews with Canyon//SRAM racing team, Elena Cecchini described it as “a strange race, this year we took all the climbs easier until the last few, where there was a lot more fighting for positioning and then a lot of attacks." Boels-Dolmans had strength in numbers on the front, building and building the pace to crescendo point, pitilessly discarding riders out the back.
From the Leberg the climbs come in quick succession, and paired with an increase in pace the legs start to burn. Canyon//SRAM’s Tiffany Cromwell dug deep on the Kanarieberg and paid for it later, telling me: “For me the hardest part is the cobbled climbs, I’m an out the seat climber so you really have to push the power down."
“For me the hardest part is the cobbled climbs, I’m an out the seat climber so you really have to push the power down." - Tiffany Cromwell
Hitting the Kwaremont and Peterberg as the last climbs of the day with only 3km separation is the knockout blow. Topping out at 22% gradient, the Paterberg leaves everything inside screaming for it to stop. A grimace inducing torture to the top. Once scaled, calm is restored from the legs up. A few seconds to gulp down oxygen before the screw turns again—as fast flat sections carry you back into Oudenaarde.
Come race day with every hour that passes the crowd’s fun barometer eases from calm to fair to party of the century. Screaming fans adorn every conceivable inch on climbs. Canyon//SRAM's Alexis Ryan told me: “Riding the Oude Kwarement with thousands of fans screaming at you, that was incredible I got goosebumps."
This atmosphere is not something women’s racing is usually privy to, but the scene is evolving. This year the last 40km of the race was televised live, a huge step on for the sport agrees Alena Amialiusik from Canyon//SRAM. Unfortunately for Alena, her live TV debut was foiled by a puncture crucially just before Kanarieberg. Although when talking to her post-race, it propels her ambition and hunger for racing, rather than dampens her spirits.
2016 has also seen the inception of the UCI Women’s WorldTour (WWT), aligning it to the men’s; but has this created a noticeable difference? “Every year it’s getting better, with the teams becoming more professional," says Cromwell, adding: “You can feel the level stepping up, it’s not just because it’s changed to WWT, it’s what’s generally happening every year in women’s racing."
“You can feel the level stepping up, it’s not just because it’s changed to WWT, it’s what’s generally happening every year in women’s racing." - Tiffany Cromwell
The WWT is so far proving to be the Boels-Dolmans show, with them claiming all top five podium spots season to date. Lizzie Armitstead, Boels-Dolmans took the win on Sunday, in a photo-finish sprint with Emma Johansson, Wiggle High5, with her Boels-Dolmans teammate Chantal Blaak taking third. Cromwell ponders the current state of affairs, saying: “We haven’t really seen a lot of teams taking it to them yet, like today it was only Rabo-Liv doing it." Although the classics are Boels-Dolmans strength, Cromwell puts it down to a willingness to risk to win at everything or lose everything.
Rabo-Liv seem to be gaining strength and with Marianne Vos being absent for so long Lisa Brennauer, Canyon//SRAM, believes it’s taken time for them to get things together and start to re-create the strength they’re re-known for. It will be interesting to see what affect Vos’ return back to the WorldTour is going to have. The general feeling to have her back in the peloton is positive: “I’m so happy she’s coming back. She has respect from the peloton and does so much for women’s cycling" enthuses Cecchini.
There’s also a noticeable absence for Canyon//SRAM without Trixi Worrrack: “It’s a pity that Trixi isn’t here, she’s another rider who would be able to help us do even more in the bunch" Brennauer reflects. With another 30 days of racing left in the Women’s WorldTour there is still plenty more action to look forward to.
The upward trajectory seen in women’s cycling at the moment is nothing but positive, although there’s more to be done, and it still feels very male dominated. Evident on the sportive, personally I didn’t see anymore than 10 women partaking on the day. But this doesn’t mean it’s not wanted, from witnessing the atmosphere at the start and finish of the women’s race, to exuberant cheers of encouragement when I was digging deep to scale the Paterburg. There’s a peloton rising in performance every year, with people interested in seeing the journey.
There’s no better way to follow than being there in the flesh absorbing the atmosphere. Taking on the challenge of the sportive the day before intensified the appreciation for what these riders put themselves through. If next year you’re looking to take on a challenge then I recommend to look no further, it’s brutal and unforgiving but the Belgian camaraderie is lifting. And after 230 brutal kilometres, nothing washes down the hazy feeling of achievement like a cold Belgian beer.
The Tour of Flanders was the fifth race in the UCI Women's World Tour - the next event in the line up will be La Flèche Wallonne Féminine in Belgium on April 20.