Feature Photo by Getty Images: Liane Lippert’s winning attack in February at Australia’s first WWT event, the Deakin University Elite Women’s Race
This is the month the Women’s WorldTour should be swinging into full gear, starting with the Tuscan vistas and white gravel roads of the Strade Bianche. Then, according to the plan, the racing just keeps on rolling as we head into the heart of spring classics season.
Coronavirus, though, is changing that plan. The Strade Bianche has been cancelled, and that isn’t the last of the alterations to the schedule.
It is an uncertain month ahead, with the potential for this what’s on to look a little bit more like a what’s not on by the end of it. However, before we head down that twisting path lets look back on what happened in February.
February was the final rainbow tinged month of the cyclocross season and it seemed almost certain, even before the racing started, that this was the year to usher in a fresh new world cyclocross champion. Seven-time cyclocross world champion Marianne Vos was out of the running after a medical procedure and three-time winner Sanne Cant clearly wasn’t carrying that unbeatable form we’ve seen in past years.
Even though it looked likely this would be the year for someone new, it was still a brave move for Dutch rider Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado to line up for the elite women’s World Cyclocross Championship on February 1. The 21 year-old would have had to be the undisputed favourite if she took to the line in the Under 23 category, but with a string World Cup podiums behind her she decided to take a gamble and step up early. It is a gamble that sure paid off.
The trio of Alvarado, Lucinda Brand and World Cup series winner Annemarie Worst delivered the much anticipated Dutch showdown at Dubendorf. The three were out the front together much of the race, but Brand just couldn’t keep pace with her Dutch teammates in the very final stages. This meant it was down to the young pair to sprint it out for the win.
Based on previous results, it was a scenario that left Worst with the upper hand, but that wasn’t the case this time. Worst just didn’t have enough left in reserve to counter Alvarado’s final charge and the 21-year-old secured the win when it really counted.
Worst, though, finished the cyclocross season on winning terms. She took out victory in the final international race on the calendar at the Internationale Sluitingsprijs Oostmalle.
Now turning to the road, where February was a time of new beginnings. It marked the start of a new year of Women’s WorldTour (WWT) racing and the introduction of a new event to the calendar, the Deakin University Elite Women’s Race.
As an Australian women’s cycling fan it was hard not to feel as excited as a kid on Christmas morning as the first WWT event ever in Australia got underway. The 121 kilometre elite women’s event at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race had well and truly proven its worthiness of being elevated to WWT level after delivering years of well-broadcast, professionally run racing on an exciting loop out from Geelong with climbs, coastal views and cross winds.
However, it was a difficult WWT debut with the rain and heavy cloud on the day making it difficult for the race to put its best foot forward. There were weather induced coverage interruptions and, worst of all, a terrible crash. The bulk of the peloton were affected by a big pile up about 100 kilometres into the race, leaving only a group of around 25 rider out the front and in contention during the final stages.
Through the turmoil Liane Lippert (Team Sunweb) finished off a spectacular Australian summer of season of racing by launching an attack that no one could hold onto. The young German rider soloed to her first WWT win. Defending champion Arlenis Sierra (Astana) came second and in third it was Australian champion Amanda Spratt (Mitchelton-Scott), who had been isolated in that front group by the crash.
The crash during the February 1 race spilled over to the next event on the calendar, the 2.1 ranked Lexus of Blackburn Womens Herald Sun Tour. Defending champion Lucy Kennedy (Mitchelton-Scott) lined up with only 3 teammates, Chloe Hosking’s Rally Cycling withdrew from the 2-day-tour entirely and other teams also failed to field a full squad.
It didn’t however dent the ferocity of the competition in the closing race of the Australian summer, with the mountain top finale on the first Thursday in February delivering an extraordinarily exciting and unpredictable day of racing.
Time gaps had opened up in the first flat stage around the farming region of Shepparton, with a split in the peloton on the windy flat terrain. Arlenis Sierra (Astana) made the front group and won the bunch sprint, stepping into the leaders jersey. Though the second stage, with 1,000 metres of ascent taking the riders up to the final finish line at Falls Creek, presented plenty of opportunity for rivals to pull back large chunks of time from the Cuban rider.
This was undoubtedly a stage that played into the strengths of defending champion Lucy Kennedy (Mitchelton-Scott), but no one was going to make it easy for her to reclaim the title. The peloton splintered on the climb and the attacks kept coming, with Kennedy adding in plenty of surges of her own as well to try and shake off the competition.
As the crowd at the finish line got a clear view of the lead group of riders winding it up for that final sprint, the race leader, Sierra, was still nestled in the group alongside Kennedy. And then all of a sudden she wasn’t and Sierra’s GC lead evaporated.
Completely spent the Cuban rider came almost to a standstill painstakingly close to the line, forcing Sarah Gigante (Tibco-SVB) who was on her wheel to come around and restart her pursuit of Ella Harris (Vantage New Zealand). Harris was quickly charged toward the finish, despite having been dropped and then fighting back more times than she could count on the way up.
The New Zealand rider, who normally races for Canyon-SRAM, held off the accelerating Gigante. Kennedy came through in third and that was enough to secure her the overall title.
It was clear from the exhausted slumped figures of the riders coming over the line just how hard fought that climb had been, but in none was it more evident than former Zwift Academy winner Harris. Overcome as she crossed the line it was clear she had held nothing back (not even her lunch) in pursuit of that first professional win in the mountains of Victoria.
With the Australian season now over, the teams and the attention returned to Europe and the highly anticipated beginning of the spring one day races. The classic specialists launched their campaigns at the 1.1 ranked Omloop Het Nieuwsblad through the Flemish hills, and World Champion Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) debuted those rainbow stripes with an impressive show of strength.
Despite an early mechanical, van Vleuten managed to get herself into the lead group and then ride away from them on the way up the Muur-Kapelmuur. She finished the wet and cold 126 kilometre race across classic climbs and cobbles with enough time up her sleeve to unzip her vest and make sure her hard earned world championship jersey was on display. Defending champion Marta Bastianelli (Ale BTC Ljubljana) came second and Floortje Mackaij (Team Sunweb) third.
WHAT’S ON MARCH
March 1 – Spar – Omloop van het Hageland – Tienen – Tielt-Winge (1.1)
March 7 – Strade Bianche (WWT) CANCELLED
March 15 – UCI Women’s WorldTour Bevrijdingsronde van Drenthe (WWT) CANCELLED
March 22 – Omloop van de Westhoek – Memorial Stive Vermaut (1.1) CANCELLED
March 22 – Trofeo Alfredo Binda – Comune di Cittiglio (WWT) POSTPONED TO JUNE 2
March 26 – AG Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne (WWT) CANCELLED
March 29 – Gent-Wevelgem In Flanders Fields (WWT) CANCELLED
Not long ago we were looking ahead to a packed March schedule, with those highly anticipated one day spring classics playing out across the gravel, climb and cobbles of Europe. Now, teams are pulling out, the Strade Bianche has been cancelled and Trofeo Alfredo Binda has been postponed. The one thing that is certain, among the uncertainty, is that the spread of coronavirus won’t leave pro cycling unscathed.
Even before the cancellation of the Strade Bianche Australian team Mitchelton-Scott had said it would be sitting out the next patch of racing, including the WWT Bevrijdingsronde van Drenthe and Trofeo Alfredo Binda. So regardless of whether these races go ahead in the next two to three weeks, we know it will be without one of the top teams and World Champion, Annemiek van Vleuten.
The Mitchelton-Scott rider showed what good form she was in with that Omloop Het Nieuwsblad win at the end of February so it has got to be disappointing not to be able to race, particularly at Italy’s Strade Bianche where she is defending champion.
It was a late decision to cancel the 136 kilometre race with over 30 kilometres of gravel. The official word came just a couple of days before it was due to run, though there was an expectation it would be called off once the Italian government announced measures to try and limit the spread of coronavirus.
After the Strade Bianche the schedule has the Women’s WorldTour moving onto Dutch soil, with the cobbled sections of the Bevrijdingsronde van Drenthe mid-month. Then it is meant to be back to Italy for a race that has long been a fixture on the women’s calendar, the hilly Trofeo Alfredo Binda. Organisers have now announced that this event has been postponed to June 2.
Finally, the peloton is scheduled to be in Belgium for the last two WWT races of the month, the AG Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne and the ninth women’s edition of Gent-Wevelgem, a cobbled classic for the sprinters.
Of course, now, that all depends on the evolving situation with coronavirus.
The uncertainty comes at a difficult time, as there is more than the battle for those prestigious race wins at stake. National teams are being finalised for the Olympics, so riders are looking for any opportunity they can get to showcase their form and secure a berth.
How to follow the action
The signs have been encouraging for coverage of the spring racing this year. GCN Racing had planned to cover the Strade Bianche, and based on what we have seen in recent times, will be one of the key places to check for women’s cycling coverage throughout the month. Proximus Sports is another on the list of sites to keep a watch on this month as it delivered coverage of Gent-Wevelgem, among other races, last year.
Stay tuned to The Women’s Race on Twitter throughout the month, where we post more details on how to follow races as the links become available.
Have a little more time up your sleeve and want to continue delving into the world of women’s cycling? Here’s some of the coverage we’ve enjoyed from across the cycling media over the past month:
- For the first time ever there was a junior women’s event at the Cyclocross World Championships and Cyclocross Magazine delivered this report from the history making race.
- Voxwomen kicked off their podcasts for the year, with a first edition packed with great interviews from the sidelines of the Australian racing.
- Cycling Weekly wrote about the world’s top women’s team, Boels Dolmans, securing their future beyond this year with a new sponsor, SD Worx.
- An insight filled series from Molly Weaver, The Harsh Realities of Women’s Cycling, started on CyclingTips.
- Cyclingnews put out a guide to the women’s spring one-day races, a handy preview for those that do go ahead.
See you in a month for What’s on in Women’s Racing April. In the meantime, follow The Women’s Race on Twitter for updates.