The 2021 classics season opens this weekend with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and the unfortunate reality is that this year’s opening weekend will feature just one race for the elite women. In previous years the 1.Pro Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was the first of a one-two punch with Omloop Het Hageland, but alas, that event has been called off due to COVID-19.
Of course, Omloop Het Hageland isn’t the only women’s elite race to be called off this year amid the global pandemic, and the shuttering of multiple races from the Ronde van Drenthe, to Itzulia Women, to the Colorado Classic, has placed extra importance on the events that do go forward. It’s no secret, then, that all of the elite women lining up on Saturday will be looking to win.
It’s also no secret that all eyes will be on defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten, whose stellar 2020 campaign opened with a dominating win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Van Vleuten is just one of a star-studded lineup of riders at this year’s race, and all of the top women seem to bring their own storylines to follow into the season opener. Here are five of the many great stories to follow at this year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Annemiek van Vleuten’s Movistar launch
Van Vleuten’s domination of the UCI WorldTour presented a chicken-or-egg question that fans and journalists always questioned. What was more important to van Vleuten’s big victories: her legs, or her teammates at Mitchelton-Scott? That question is worth asking again as van Vleuten tries to defend her title at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with an entirely new cast of teammates on Team Movistar. Van Vleuten has never raced with any of her five teammates, which include American Leah Thomas. All five women are seasoned professionals, and they recently completed an altitude training camp in the Canary Islands. The squad is undoubtedly fit. So, whether they can control the peloton, survive the bergs, and then shepherd van Vleuten to the based of the Muur van Geraardsbergen is worth watching.
Team BikeExchange’s new era
We’re all trying to figure out what van Vleuten’s departure to Movistar means for her old team, Team BikeExchange. On paper, losing the world’s most dominant rider is a bad thing, right? Well, in discussions with riders across the women’s WorldTour, there’s a feeling that van Vleuten’s departure will allow BikeExchange to race more like a team, and give other riders more opportunities to win. That’s an enticing storyline to watch. On paper, Amanda Spratt will lead the team’s charge in the hillier terrain. For classics and cobbles, look to Sarah Roy and Grace Brown to get opportunities. Roy just claimed the Australian road race national title and Brown was second in the time trial and road race — a sign of her top form. And don’t forget about Teniel Campbell, who will make her debut with the WorldTour team this year.
How BikeExchange races without van Vleuten is something I cannot wait to see.
Marta Bastianelli tries to slay the monkey
What’s the monkey on Marta Bastianelli’s back? Why, it’s two successive runner-up finishes at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (2019 and 2020). Bastianelli (Alé BTC Ljubjana) is one of the best classics riders of her generation, with wins at the Tour of Flanders (2019), Ronde van Drenthe (2019), Gent-Wevelgem (2018), and two victories at Omloop Het Hageland. She would undoubtedly love to cap off this stellar career with the elusive win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The Muur has often been just a few meters too long for her to summit with the leaders. So, keep an eye on Bastianelli and her teammate Mavi Garcia as the peloton rumbles to the base of the Muur.
Trek-Segafredo’s strength in numbers
Perhaps the biggest story of the 2020 season was Trek-Segafredo’s aggressive racing tactics, and the team’s ability to challenge Mitchelton-Scott and Boels Dolmans’ supremacy in the hardest races. Trek-Segafredo returns in 2021 with its core intact, built around Lizzie Deignan, Ellen van Dijk, and Elisa Longo Borghini. All three are back for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and they are accompanied by one of the team’s major acquisitions in the offseason: sprinter Chloe Hosking. Hosking’s addition adds sprint firepower to the team, making it perhaps the most well-rounded squad in the bunch. Longo Borghini and Deignan can attack on the climbs, van Dijk can go on the flats, and Hosking can win a bunch kick. Whether or not this team strength can overpower van Vleuten is something to watch.
SD Worx’s colorful debut
Boels-Dolmans is now SD Worx, and if you’re like me, it’s simply going to take some time to adjust to the new name and the striking new kits. The most successful women’s team of the last decade heads into Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with its usual lineup of hitters, captained by 2019 champ Chantal van den Broek-Blaak and reigning world champion Anna van der Breggen. New recruit Demi Vollering makes her debut with the squad, and sprinters Amy Pieters and Jolien D’Hoore will be waiting in the wings if the race comes down to a kick. On paper, SD Worx is still the most well-rounded team in the UCI women’s WorldTour, and you can expect them to flex their muscles throughout the season. Whether or not van der Breggen is at her world-beating best is a question to watch for. She has bigger fish to fry later in the season, with the 2021 Olympics being her career-capping race.