We’re three races into the women’s European cycling calendar after Wednesday’s wet and windy Le Samyn des Dames, and we’ve seen three different teams on the podium’s top step. Unexpectedly, the list of winners does not include a rider from Boels-Dolmans, the team that nearly swept the early spring classics last year — should alarm bells be ringing for the Dutch super-team?
With the season’s first Women’s WorldTour event, Strade Bianche, just days away, Boels-Dolmans’s star-studded roster has yet to dominate like it did last year.
In 2016, Boels rocketed into the season with a one-two punch at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Lizzie Deignan escaped for a solo victory while her teammate Chantal Blaak out-sprinted the field for second. The team finished with five of its six riders in the front bunch.
This year, Deignan opted out of the first week of racing, leaving Omloop up to her teammates. Blaak repeated her sprint for second in a small group that broke from the peloton earlier in the race. Team Sunweb’s Lucinda Brand snuck away from the small lead group, winning the opening race by 15 seconds.
Although the racing action was in Flanders, we might look to the Belgian Ardennes to explain Boels’s near-miss at Omloop. The addition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Amstel Gold Race creates a full Ardennes week at the end of the spring campaign in late April. This could be compelling teams and riders to specialize, choosing between the cobbled classics and hilly Ardennes races. Some riders, such as Deignan, might opt for a later start to the season, focusing on the second half of the spring while sacrificing some of the earlier, less prestigious races.
Sunday’s Spar-Omloop van het Hageland was even more disappointing for Boels. Blaak managed 16th place in the bunch sprint while current world champion Amalie Dideriksen was the top-placed Boels rider in ninth. This actually doesn’t differ much from last year’s results.
Without a specialized sprinter on the team, it’s not a big surprise the team didn’t win this fast finish. But Boels regularly finds a way around these sprinter races with tactics that break the field into smaller pieces, giving its puncheurs like Blaak, Deignan, and Dideriksen a chance to win. Plus, the women’s peloton is deeper than ever with a long list of proven performers, so it’ll be hard for one team to control the peloton like Boels did last spring.
But it was at Le Samyn that Boels’s missing dominance became clear. The team didn’t have the same presence and authority as last year where Blaak beat Wiggle-High5’s Emma Johansson and the team took four of the top seven spots. Instead, Sheyla Gutiérrez (Cylance Pro Cycling) bested Amy Pieters (Boels-Dolmans) on the uphill sprint and only two other Boels riders finishing in the top 20.
“I don’t think I did anything wrong,” said Pieters. “It was only the one other that was faster. I couldn’t have done anymore. Sheyla was really fast today, and now we know for next time.”
The change of total team dominance could be a matter of Boels protecting its riders from the grueling Belgium weather, keeping the main contenders out of the slick and cold conditions, and saving them for the upcoming WWT races. But the first few misses make for an unexpected start for a team we expect to dominate early season classics.
So is Boels-Dolmans set up for a disappointing year? Not a chance. The true test arrives this Saturday at Strade Bianche, where we’ll get a real glimpse at what’s to come for the best teams and racers in women’s cycling. Watch for rested, organized, and hungry orange jerseys leading the way for Boels. Deignan is still our top pick and the team surely has some fireworks up its sleeves. But if the first salvo of spring classics is any indication, we’ve got an exciting season of women’s cycling ahead.