Eyeing Flanders peak, Rivera goes on the attack at Gent-Wevelgem

Sunweb's Coryn Rivera used Sunday's Gent-Wevelgem to hone her form ahead of her Tour of Flanders defense on April 1.

WEVELGEM, Belgium (VN) — As the defending champion in the Tour of Flanders, Sunweb’s Coryn Rivera is a rider with a target on her back this classics campaign. At least in the early goings, however, she’s busy working her way back to top form after a bout with illness that struck after Strade Bianche.

With that in mind, she used Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem – where she finished third in 2017 – as a chance to put some tough miles into her legs ahead of her big spring goal at De Ronde next weekend.

“This year, Strade was a lot colder, with snow a few days before and then it was just pissing rain all day. It was a lot of stress on my body and I was kind of like, ‘I’m going to be badass, it’s going to be wet anyways. I’ll just wear a vest.’ I really paid the price for that,” she told VeloNews before Gent-Wevelgem.

It took Rivera some time to push through the post-Strade fatigue, but she has since recovered her health – despite riding through unpleasant conditions since the start of the season.

“I really learned from [Strade Bianche] going into the next races. So far every race I’ve done has been in the rain,” she said. “I DNFed at that race, but now I’m actually finishing and starting to feel like myself.”

With the Tour of Flanders at the top of Rivera’s list of objectives, Sunweb drew up a Gent-Wevelgem plan centered on an in-form Ellen van Dijk, herself a former winner at De Ronde. That meant putting all hands on deck to make for a hard race Sunday afternoon to provide the ideal setup for the Dutchwoman, whose big engine makes her a threat launching attacks out of a tired peloton.

Rivera was more than happy to oblige, even if it meant torpedoing her own chances for the scenario most likely to suit her own skills: a sprint.

Those expecting the 25-year-old to stay patiently tucked in behind teammates at Gent-Wevelgem were treated to a surprise. Instead, she put in a solo dig inside the final 10 kilometers. She initially opened up a gap before the bunch swept her up and then spat her out the back. Van Dijk followed up Rivera’s salvo with one of her own, but the move was reeled in before the line.

Ultimately, the race did come down to a sprint, won by Alé Cippolini’s Marta Bastianelli. Floortje Mackaij crossed the line as Sunweb’s top finisher in eighth place.

Things didn’t quite work out the way the team hoped in the battle for a result on Sunday, but looking forward to next weekend, Rivera was content with the chance to tune-up and put in the watts for someone else.

“Ellen is in really top shape right now and that was our best card to play today. We went all in with Ellen to make it a really hard race, and I got a little bit of form out of that too. I really emptied myself here and gave everything for the team,” she said after the race. “For me, I’m still building. There’s still a little bit of form that I can work on.”

Surprising as it may have been to observers expecting Rivera to battle for a sprint win in Wevelgem, putting in a late attack was the best way to kill two birds with one stone with a bigger target looming.

“I needed to be part of the race, and ‘on.’ Sometimes waiting for the sprint can be boring,” she said. “I like a harder race, and I’m not just a flat sprinter.”

Gent-Wevelgem also provided Rivera and Co. with a chance to get a beat on how their rivals are racing this cobbled campaign. Having gone up and over the testing Kemmelberg multiple times, Rivera said after the race that it was all about the ‘usual suspects’ for Flanders.

If all goes according to plan, the defending champ will be among those suspects next weekend. Should Rivera find herself still short of 100 percent at De Ronde, Sunweb does have options, with the likes of van Dijk and Mackaij potential contenders again. An in-form 2017 winner, however, would be ideal.

Rivera was pleased with the early returns from Gent-Wevelgem, fortunately for Sunweb. With this Sunday’s race in the books, there are only six day’s left until the Tour of Flanders.

“There’s only so much I can control,” she said. “Recover from this weekend, fine tune for next weekend. When I wake up that day, it is what it is! There’s not much you can do now, just really fine-tuning.”