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Festival Elsy Jacobs: Italy pushing Netherlands as top nation in women’s cycling

American rider Veronica Ewers claims breakthrough first professional win with solo attack on final day.

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Italy is seriously threatening the Netherlands’ domination as the top nation in women’s cycling.

The Mediterranean country is enjoying one of its best springs in recent years with victories in six of the 10 WorldTour race days so far, thanks to Elisa Balsamo, Elisa Longo Borghini, and Marta Cavalli.

That success has filtered down the racing calendar and Italy was once again at the forefront at this weekend’s Festival Elsy Jacobs. Marta Bastianelli (UAE Team ADQ) led the line for the nation, taking a stage win and wrapping up the overall classification.

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If it hadn’t been for a crash just inside the final 10 kilometers of Sunday’s stage 2, the last of the race, it could have been even better for Italy.

Silvia Persico (Valcar-Travel & Service) had gone into the final day with thin advantage in the GC, and she was hanging on well as repeated attacks — including one particularly stinging one from Demi Vollering (SD Worx) — flew off the front on the rolling terrain, but she was caught up behind the tumble with 8k to go.

Persico wasn’t downed by the fall on the tight bend, but it was enough to force her to unclip as the race exploded and she wasn’t able to get back on to the group. Thanks to some solid work from her team, she was able to hold onto the overall podium.

However, it was Bastianelli, who won the sprint from the chase group behind stage winner Veronica Ewers, that took the overall win by nine seconds over the American with Persico at 16 seconds back.

“Today’s stage was challenging in many ways. The finale was very confusing because of a crash that split the peloton,” Bastianelli said. “Some of the girls who were in the general classification stayed behind, while those who were in the front group with me, Sofia [Bertizzolo] and Maaike [Boogaard] tried very hard to get us in trouble and attack us.

“I’m very happy to have won this race, especially for my teammates because they really gave their souls for me during these days and so to lose this race for a few seconds would have been a shame. But we did it and we are all very happy.”

Italy has been the closest challenger to the Netherlands in the world rankings over the past five seasons, but the orange squad has always enjoyed a fairly comfortable cushion at the top. However, a top-notch spring 2022 for the Italians has seen some of the stuffing come out of that cushion.

The world rankings are calculated on a rolling basis using the most recent 52 weeks, meaning a points tally can decrease if riders perform worse than they did at the same time last year.

Bastianelli is one of the five key Italian riders leading the charge for Italy and making up its growing world ranking tally. Balsamo, Longo Borghini, Cavalli, and Persico’s teammate Chiara Consonni make up the other four.

Since the start of the season, the performances of these five riders have seen Italy cut the deficit to the Netherlands by more than half. The updated world rankings will not be published until Tuesday, but the successes at the Festival Elsy Jacobs should see it trimmed down a touch further.

Could Italy knock the Netherlands off the top spot for the first time in years? With the form its riders are in at the moment, it would be churlish to bet against it happening. Annemiek van Vleuten’s recent wrist break could see that gap closed even more in the coming weeks.

A breakthrough for Veronica Ewers

It wasn’t just the Italians that tasted some glory at the Festival Elsy Jacobs at the weekend. American rider Veronica Ewers scored a breakthrough success with her solo victory on the final stage.

Ewers made her move with five kilometers to go in what was a hectic and undulating finale. She never held much of a gap, with the small chasing group almost always able to see her just up the road.

However small the gap, it was enough for her to take her first UCI win since turning pro last year and against a very tough field. The stage win was enough to put her into second place in the overall classification.

“I’m in shock right now to be honest. It’s my first win as a WorldTour cyclist and I really didn’t expect this to be the outcome today,” Ewers said of her stage win Sunday. “[I was thinking] this is the last chance. I’m just going to give it everything I have. I turned around and I had a bit of a gap and I just said, ‘This is it, I have to give it everything right now.’

“I turned around again, and I had a bigger gap and I just kept going. I turned around again, and I couldn’t see them, and I just said, ‘I have to go to the finish as hard as possible.’ I considered quitting multiple times, but my DS was in my ear and so were my teammates, telling me to keep going and give it everything.”

Ewers is the latest rider that was talent-spotted by former Canadian pro Linda Jackson to find success.

She has had a swift rise to the top tier of world cycling after taking third at the 2021 US road nationals and then getting a late call to ride for the EF Education-TIBCO-SVB (formerly known as TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank) at the Joe Martin Stage race.

The 27-year-old was a late-comer to cycling after trying out a lot of other sports first, including soccer and running. After tentatively getting into cycling, she was picked up by the Fount Cycling Guild team, which is now an official development squad for EF Education.