HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — The wait is almost over, and the Tour of Flanders is nearly here.
Flanders finest will set off from Oudenaarde on Sunday afternoon, taking in six cobbled sectors and 11 climbs — including the Koppenberg for the first time in the women’s race.
Annemiek van Vleuten is back in Belgium looking to defend her title and become the first female to win the Tour of Flanders three times.
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Any victory will be hard-fought with several teams bringing star-studded rosters looking to blast through for victory.
VeloNews has compiled a list of riders to watch out for on Sunday.
Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar)
As the defending champion, Annemiek van Vleuten has to be on the top of this list. The Dutch rider spent the early part of her winter recovering from a broken shoulder and pelvis following a crash at last year’s Paris-Roubaix.
Despite still being on crutches well into December, van Vleuten came out of the gates flying this February. She romped to victory in the opening stage race of the season in Valencia and took an impressive win over Demi Vollering at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. She had to settle for second at Strade Bianche after Lotte Kopecky put in one of the rides of her career to follow van Vleuten up the steep climb to the Piazza del Campo.
Van Vleuten spent three weeks training at altitude after Strade and came back to the bunch at Dwars door Vlaanderen. While she wasn’t able to replicate her win of 12 months ago, she was very much at the forefront of the race and is confident of her form going into this weekend. The inclusion of the Koppenberg in this year’s Flanders will be a boost for van Vleuten as she tries to make the race as challenging as possible for her opponents.
Elisa Balsamo (Trek-Segafredo)
Elisa Balsamo has been the March rider of the month with three consecutive victories spread out over just eight days of racing. The world champion won at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, then the Classic Brugge-De Panne, and at last Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem. Her run has catapulted her to the realm of top contender for the Tour of Flanders.
Balsamo’s string of successes has been facilitated by a very strong Trek-Segafredo squad, which has been wrangling control of the peloton in recent weeks. She will have the backing of a formidable lineup this Sunday, but the team may hedge its bets a bit more in this race compared to previous races.
The toughest ask for Balsamo will be hanging onto the wheels of the climbers in the back over a relentless stream of Flemish hellingen. Having seen her recent form, there’s no doubt that lots of teams will be looking to shell her from the pack before the race returns to Oudenaarde. If she can hang on, then there are few that could beat her in a sprint for the line.
Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx)
Belgium awaits. Lotte Kopecky will be the overwhelming home favorite as Belgium looks for its first home winner of the women’s race since Grace Verbeke in 2010 — and only the second ever. Kopecky will once again be at the helm of a strong SD Worx squad that boast Demi Vollering and former Flanders winner Chantal van den Broek-Blaak.
The Belgian champion is in the form of her life at the moment and will be boosted by her victory at Strade Bianche earlier this month. Kopecky went toe-to-toe with van Vleuten on the final ascent to the finish line and hung onto her wheels before getting one over on her in the sprint.
If she can bring the form she had in Italy, then she could make life very difficult for the defending champion. She also has the benefit of a strong sprint that could see her win from most small groups.
Ellen van Dijk (Trek-Segafredo)
In a race that could develop in multiple ways, having options is a bonus. Trek-Segafredo boasts several — on top of the in-form Balsamo — and former winner Ellen van Dijk is one of those. The team also has another former winner in Elisa Longo Borghini, who is also in top form at the moment.
Van Dijk has been an integral part of Trek-Segafredo’s success over the past few weeks, pulling the peloton along and trampling down dangerous breakaways that get up the road. She may have some of that to do this weekend, but she can turn defense into attack if Balsamo finds herself slipping back on the climbs.
Van Dijk, the reigning world time trial champion, won her Flanders title back in 2014 with a long-range solo effort that saw her claim victory by over a minute. In the form that she’s in at the moment: don’t bet against her.
Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma)
It has been almost 10 years since Marianne Vos won her Tour of Flanders title, but she has shown this year that she is not slowing down as she gets older. The eight-time world cyclocross champion has not raced much on the road so far this season, but she appears to be hitting good form at just the right time.
Vos kickstarted her road campaign with seventh at Strade Bianche. She had to miss the Trofeo Alfredo Binda after picking up a cold but was back in business for Gent-Wevelgem last week where she finished second to Balsamo.
Vos is not the only former Flanders winner on the Jumbo-Visma roster for Sunday with Coryn Labecki set to ride. The pair will be backed by the likes of Anna Hendersen and Riejanne Markus, who have both been in strong form so far this spring.
Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM)
Kasia Niewiadoma is still searching for a big result this spring. Could Flanders be the race it finally comes together? Niewiadoma had a solid start to the season, taking sixth overall at the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana and going on to finish fourth at Strade Bianche.
She appeared to be hitting good form at just the right time, but a COVID-19 diagnosis derailed her campaign just as it was really getting going. After missing the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, she returned to racing at Gent-Wevelgem, where she put on a characteristically aggressive race. The coronavirus layoff has definitely taken the edge off her performance but we can expect her to give it a red hot go.
Niewiadoma is one of the riders who will benefit from the addition of the Koppenberg to the route and she’ll be looking to throw in several attacks and get rid of the climbers.
Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope)
With a reinforced team for 2022, FDJ has a number of potential options for this weekend’s Tour of Flanders. New signing Grace Brown, who was a runner-up in last year’s race, has been performing well lately while stalwart Marta Cavalli is in improving form after missing some racing due to a crash.
However, it is Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig that has the favorite status within the team ahead of the race. The Dane has scored in the top 10 of nearly every race she’s competed at so far this year, taking second to van Vleuten at the Setmana Ciclista Valenciana in the spring, fifth at Strade Bianche, and ninth at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda.
Like many of the climbers in the bunch, her result at Dwars door Vlaanderen isn’t representative of her form at the moment. With Brown, Cavalli, and the likes of Brodie Chapman, FDJ can get stuck into the team tactics game this weekend. Uttrup Ludwig has a good finishing speed on her, too, and will be a threat from a small group.
Lorena Wiebes (Team DMS)
Lorena Wiebes was the top sprinter in the pack at the start of March but has been superseded by Balsamo in recent weeks. That has been more about bad luck than dwindling form with a broken spoke impacting her sprint at the Classic Brugge-De Panne and a crash hampering her Gent-Wevelgem performance.
Wiebes showed at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad at the end of February that she can handle a tough race on the climbs and still have a powerful kick at the end when she sprinted for third in the chasing group behind van Vleuten and Demi Vollering.
The Tour of Flanders is a tougher opponent than Omloop Het Niewsblad, but that result will still give her confidence ahead of this weekend. This will be Wiebes’ first appearance at the Tour of Flanders so, whatever the result, it will be interesting to see how she does.
Marta Bastianelli (UAE Team ADQ)
Marta Bastianelli is another of the seven former winners of the Tour of Flanders that is set be at the start in Oudenaarde. The Italian got her season off to a flying start with two wins in Valencia and victory at Omloop van het Hageland.
While she’s not won in March, she’s still maintained a strong run mopping up a string of top 5 placings. Bastianelli would probably like to see riders such as Balsamo and Wiebes get shelled from the peloton if she is to repeat her win from 2019, but she’ll also need to hold on tight when the attacks come off the front.
Bastianelli claimed her Flanders win from a small breakaway when she got up the road with van Vleuten and Uttrup Ludwig before taking the sprint to the line.
Demi Vollering (SD Worx)
After coming straight out of an altitude training block into the Tour of Flanders, Demi Vollering says that her real ambitions lie with the Ardennes classics in a couple of weeks, but she can’t be discounted from this race.
Now in her second season with SD Worx, Vollering is stepping up as a big leader for the team during the upcoming races. Vollering has a good record at the Tour of Flanders, finishing seventh in her debut in 2020 and taking fifth last year. If she can continue that progression, we could well see her step onto the podium this Sunday.
Kopecky is likely to be the main leader for the race, but SD Worx rarely goes into a race without multiple options. Vollering has had very little racing this season after riding just Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Strade Bianche so far. Form immediately after a training camp can be unpredictable, but Vollering had a similar preparation for last year’s Flanders and went well.