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After the return to racing in northern Spain last week, the riders in the women’s peloton head into Saturday’s Strade Bianche having learned two very important lessons.
One is how seriously they must take COVID-19 protocols and two, to watch out for the world champion.
Annemiek van Vleuten’s victories at Emakumeen Nafarroako Klasikoa, Clasica Femenina Navarra, and Durango-Durango Emakumeen Saria have given everyone a good idea of the Mitchelton-Scott rider’s form coming out of racing’s hiatus. Nevertheless, it’s hardly a surprise, nor a huge concern.
“She’s clearly crushing it, she’s motivated, and well-prepared, but so are we,” Team Sunweb’s Coryn Rivera told VeloNews. “We’re full of energy and ready to race. We’ll do everything we can to beat her and her team.”
Of course saying you want to beat van Vleuten is much different than actually beating her. Over the past three seasons van Vleuten has been the most lethal rider on long and sustained climbs, and her impeccable skills at the individual time trial have made her the world’s top stage racer.
In recent years she has also blossomed into a well-rounded rider for the hilly and even flat classics. In 2019 she dropped everyone on the final climb to win Strade Bianche, and earlier this year she scored a cobblestone classic victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Across the peloton female riders and their directors are asking themselves a similar question: How do you beat Annemiek? Do you mark her every move and then attack her late? Do you send riders up the road early, and wait for van Vleuten to bridge across? Or do you try some other type of strategy altogether?
American Tayler Wiles (Trek-Segafredo) said the key could be to attack van Vleuten and her Mitchelton-Scott teammates with aggressive tactics.
“The more aggressive you can be in trying to get up the road, the better. I think a lot of teams make the mistake of already racing for second place,” Wiles said. “I think they need to think more about getting up the road and being up the road. Even in a climbing stage, if you’re not a climber, if you’re up the road when the climbers get to you you can help your teammates.”
For now, a bold approach seems to be the only way to challenge the world champion. During last Friday’s Clasica Femenin Navarra, it was Trek-Segafredo’s Elisa Longo Borghini who made the most decisive move of the race, breaking away from the leaders on a climb mid-way through. She and van Vleuten rode together for nearly 50 km, including after a puncture briefly sidelined the Italian, until van Vleuten launched into solo breakaway mode on the last climb.
When it comes to Strade Bianche, Longo Borghini and van Vleuten have more in common than not; the Italian won the 2017 edition, and van Vleuten is the reigning champion. Before last week’s races in Spain, both riders spent time training at altitude.
They’re also not the only women on their teams with a chance at victory on Saturday: Mitchelton-Scott has Lucy Kennedy and Amanda Spratt, and Longo Borghini’s teammate Lizzie Deignan won the race in 2016. Rounding out the victors of the five editions of Strade Bianche are Megan Guarnier in 2015 and Anna van der Breggen in 2018. It’s a veritable who’s who of riders that should temper any over-confidence about Saturday’s results.
“Strade Bianche is one of the toughest one-day races I’ve ever attended,” Deignan said. “It’s a selective race that requires an aggressive approach; you can’t play defense or have a wait-and-see approach. When you reach the final steep climb, there is only a very small group of riders who can have a chance.”
Could escaping up the road with one of van Vleuten’s teammates be a winning tactic? Wiles thinks so — riding into a strong move alongside Kennedy or Spratt could force van Vleuten to chase wheels in the pack.
“Getting in a breakaway with Amanda Spratt might be the best scenario because then Annemiek can’t chase it,” Wiles said.
Another rider who could topple van Vleuten on Saturday is Anna van der Breggen, who is the team leader at Boels-Dolmans. The Dutch squad dominated WorldTour racing from 2016 until 2018, but in 2019 saw van Vleuten and Mitchelton-Scott take over.
Team director Danny Stam doesn’t feel that he needs to craft Saturday’s strategy around van Vleuten’s potential performance. He would rather dictate the race according to his own riders’ strengths.
“I always use my own strategy,” he said. “I think we’ve done it for seven years now and don’t want to change it. Of course we know Annemiek is a favorite, so you keep an eye on one of the favorites but I think that’s pretty normal.”
“She’s in a good level, yes, but I think that Anna is also in a good level and she was close, so I’m confident we can beat her. It’s not going to be easy. She’s not a world champion for nothing, and she’s a world class rider and it’s always difficult to beat the world class riders.”