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Blaak gunning for Flanders despite Boels’s sluggish spring

Chantal Blaak is prepared to ride as the Boels-Dolmans leader in Tour of Flanders, hoping to get the team back to its winning ways.

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After a quiet start to the spring classics, Chantal Blaak is aiming to put her Boels-Dolmans team on top of the podium in Flanders this Sunday. We caught up with the Dutch rider before Gent-Wevelgem to talk about the season so far as well as her expectations for Ronde van Vlaanderen. Boels comes to the race with its strongest squad of the season including Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen and last year’s Flanders winner Lizzie Deignan. But Blaak says she’ll start as Boels’s team leader and is excited to tackle the route’s famous bergs.

If 2016 was the year of monotony in the Women’s WorldTour — with five straight Boels-Dolmans wins to start the season — then 2017 is the year of variety. In the first four races, we’ve seen four different teams win and diverse podiums at each race. Compared to last year, Boels is struggling to find the same dominance, yet the riders don’t seem to notice.

When asked about the team’s rocky start, an obviously annoyed Blaak rolls her eyes and explains that it’s the only question she gets anymore. “People keep saying that we’re not having the best season, but I think the results are pretty good,” she said. “We cannot expect to have the same results as last year. Last year we had a great season, an unbelievable season.” But with just one win and a couple of podiums from all of this season’s races (not just the WWT), something seems different.

For starters, Boels hit bad luck with illness early in the season. Van der Breggen was out with two rounds of the flu and Deignan missed last week’s Gent-Wevelgem due to illness. “Everyone worked hard this winter again,” Blaak explains. “The same as last year. The team spirit is still the same too, we just don’t win as much.”

Besides illness, Blaak points to the changing landscape of women’s racing and the growing talent in the women’s field. With four different teams winning the opening WWT races and several more with serious chances, it’s hard to ignore the changes. “Racing is just different,” she said. “Teams are pretty strong, and I think the strength is spread across the peloton, which makes it more exciting.” This unpredictability within the women’s peloton is indeed exciting. And Flanders is the pinnacle of excitement with each team bringing a stacked squad to take on the spring’s most celebrated course.

Boels returns to Flanders with defending champ Deignan who out-sprinted Wiggle-High5’s Emma Johansson from a two-woman break in 2016. Blaak sprinted to third from a small chase group but wants to move up the podium. When asked if she’ll be Boels’s designated team leader on Sunday, she hesitates for just a moment but goes on to say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” as if she’s trying to convince herself. But then adds, “Yeah, of course, if the girls believe in me.”

But Blaak knows that simply saying she’s the team leader doesn’t mean she’s the only Boels-Dolmans rider with a shot at the win. Boels is an opportunistic team, one that rides hard to break up the field and then turns its support to whichever riders make the break. “We are really strong as a group,” she said about her classics team. “For us, it’s always best to have a hard race, an aggressive race, with lots of action.” For Boels, a team full of exceptional riders, it doesn’t matter who makes it in the break, they’ll have a serious chance at the win in any case.

For Blaak, this means the pressure is on to decipher each move and pick the right ones. Blaak knows this. And she knows what happens when a teammate makes the move without her. We saw it at Ronde van Drenthe this year, where she was the defending champ but Blaak’s teammate (and current world champion) Amalie Dideriksen made the decisive move. Blaak was tasked with sitting in on the chase group while Dideriksen went on to win the race.

Blaak says that a Boels win is the same as a personal win and that she was happy for her teammate at Drenthe. But Flanders is a whole different animal and a win on the bergs is something riders plan their seasons around, their careers around. It’s what Blaak focused on during the off-season, training to prepare herself for this single day of racing. So, despite her convincing words about team pride, a Boels victory might not taste quite so sweet if she’s not the one raising her arms at the end.