The 2019 women’s cycling road season started the same way the 2018 campaign ended: apart from the notable victory of Cuba’s Arlenis Sierra at the Tour of Guangxi Women’s WorldTour, Dutch cyclists very much dominated the end-of-year racing.
With her victory at the Strade Bianche on 9th March, the Netherlands’ Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) surprised everyone, herself included, by how quickly she came back from a fractured knee sustained at the UCI Road World Championships in Innsbruck-Tirol last September.
The second round of the 2019 UCI WorldTour is another Dutch affair: the 21st edition of the women’s version of the Ronde van Drenthe, starts and finishes in Hoogeveen, in the north-east of the Netherlands on 17th March.
“The Ronde van Drenthe is quite an old race and it’s cool that they still organise it,” said van Vleuten. The men’s event was created in 1960. The women’s version of the race is younger but still dates back to the end of the 20th century when Leontien van Moorsel wasn’t just the best female cyclist in the Netherlands, but one of the dominant personalities in Dutch sport. The inaugural women’s race was organised in 1998 – the year of van Moorsel’s first individual time trial World title. She went on to become Olympic Champion in the road race in 2000 a time trial (2000 and 2004)
“Girls now have never raced with Leontien” points out van Vleuten. “I started racing with Marianne Vos as a role model,” recalls the double time trial UCI World Champion, who played football before taking up cycling in 2006, at the age of 23, while studying at university. “But we all know that Leontien was the first top professional woman cyclist in our country. I rate her very highly.”
“I was quite young when Leontien was a champion,” echoes reigning road race UCI World Champion Anna van der Breggen, who is now 28 but started cycling at the age of seven: “I was already on the bike but more for fun. I didn’t watch the races at that time.”
Van Moorsel, now Race Director of Amstel Gold Race Ladies, didn’t win that opening edition of the Ronde van Drenthe but her first victory came in the second edition, in 1999. She repeated the victory in 2002. The record book features the names of other great Dutch female cyclists who have made their mark on the event: Chantal Beltman, Loes Gunnewijk, Vos – of course (three times running from 2011 to 2013), Chantal Blaak and Amy Pieters, who won it last year.
The Netherlands have remained dominant in women’s road cycling since van Moorsel retired following the Athens 2004 Olympics. Vos (London 2012) and van der Breggen (Rio 2016) are the nation’s most recent Olympic Champions in the road race. Four of the last seven UCI World titles in the road race were awarded to Dutch athletes: Vos in 2012 and 2013, Blaak in 2017 and van der Breggen in 2018. Last year’s individual time trial podium at the UCI World Championships was all-Dutch with van Vleuten on the top spot, flanked by van der Breggen and Ellen van Dijk. And of the 24 UCI Women’s WorldTour events in 2018, 16 were won by Dutch riders!
“Ronde van Drenthe is one of three Dutch events on the UCI Women’s WorldTour,” notes van Vleuten. Alongside the Boels Ladies Tour, the recent inception of the Amstel Gold Race Ladies has strengthened the Netherlands’ position on the calendar behind Belgium, the host of five events. The Amstel Gold Race Ladies returned in 2017, breaking a 14-year hiatus after its initial three-year stint from 2001 to 2003 – which included van Moorsel’s victory in 2002.
Women’s WorldTour Ronde van Drenthe is a true northern Spring Classic but not totally flat, despite starting 20 metres above sea level and finishing at 14 metres... the infamous VAMberg is too short to create significant differences between the contenders but always has an influence on how the race plays out. “The course has got some climbs but it’s not real climbing,” explains top sprinter and UCI World Champion on the track Kirsten Wild, who came second to Vos on two occasions in Hoogeveen. “However, it hurts the legs. The distance, the cobbles and the climbs make it a really hard race.”
Belgium’s Jolien D’hoore, who won in 2015, defined it as “an epic race because of a cobblestone section close to the finish.” Van Vleuten went deeper into describing the race’s specific features: “I like it. There are some sections that are not cobbled but where they threw some stones in a couple of years ago. That’s what we race on. It’s not really nice cobbled sections, it’s roads with some stones on it!”
Anna van der Breggen continues: “It’s a Dutch race so of course it’s Dutch riding. It’s cool to have a race in your own country. It feels special. It has some cobbled sections on its course. They’re quite hard. The race depends a bit on the weather. If it’s windy, you can have a lot of echelons. It’s hard racing together with the cobbles. But I like the Dutch racing!”