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Van Vleuten attacked repeatedly over the 120-kilometer course, but she knew that her chances were limited. Unfortunately for the Dutchwoman, two of the spots she hoped to break up the race had a headwind, making it next to impossible for her to get away.
After three weeks away from racing following her second-placed ride at Strade Bianche at the start of March, it was still a good hit-out for van Vleuten as she prepares to defend her Tour of Flanders title this weekend. She also got to work with new teammates for the first time.
“There were only two or three climbs that I could do something and on two of those there was a full headwind so it would have been hard today to repeat last year,” van Vleuten said after the finish. “The course is not that hard, it was like 1,200 altitude meters and 120 kilometers. Usually, I can make the difference but only after a long and hard race. We had two plans, for the climbs I would try to attack because you never know and in the worst-case scenario you have a good training.
“After the last climb, I was riding for Arlenis Sierra, she is a super-fast girl, and it was my first time racing with her in the team. It was a really good opportunity to ride for my team. I really enjoyed it and I had a really good day.”
Since racing at Strade Bianche, van Vleuten has spent the past three weeks training at altitude in Tenerife. She arrived in Belgium on Tuesday evening to race Dwars door Vlaanderen and do a recon of the Tour of Flanders parcours, before heading home for a couple of days to see family in the Netherlands and then returning to Belgium for Flanders itself.
After a long time out of racing, van Vleuten was happy to test herself in the bunch ahead of Flanders.
“I just came back from altitude, I am happy to be back in Flanders. I look forward to Sunday, the legs are good and it is quite a different race from today. Today was a good training and a good wake up for the legs after training.”
In her recon on Thursday, van Vleuten will discover a new route that includes the Koppenberg. It is the first time that the 600-meter climb will feature in the women’s race with its average gradient of just over 11 percent and a maximum of 22 percent.
The harder the better for van Vleuten, so she is delighted that it has been introduced.
“I think that Ronde van Vlaanderen needs to have the Koppenberg and I’m happy that it’s the first time that we can race there,” van Vleuten said.
Trek-Segafredo goes on the offensive
Van Vleuten wasn’t the only one trying to force the splits over the climbs. Without its star sprinter Elisa Balsamo for the midweek race, Trek-Segafredo turned its defensive strategy into attack at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Despite no Balsamo, the American-registered team still had a formidable lineup with Elisa Longo Borghini, European champion Ellen van Dijk, and Lucinda Brand returning from her post-cyclocross season break.
While the team had Chloe Hosking and Brand as potential sprint options, the team wasn’t going to wait for one to happen. Longo Borghini made it into a move with van Vleuten but the escape was brought back by the group.
“We wanted to have a race where everyone could have a chance, so we tried attacks with me and with Ellen. We wanted to see how Lucinda was fairing and we wanted to spare Chloe for the sprint. In the end, it was a very aggressive race and a very hard one,” Longo Borghini said.
“It was a very nice race in my opinion, and we saw attacks flying from the very beginning. It was really fought from the beginning to the end. We managed to go away with Annemiek, [Cecilie] Uttrup Ludwig, and [Liane] Lippert on Trieu but then it didn’t last. We did try to go as a team, one by one and we had Lucinda for the sprint but sometimes it’s not working out.”