Special occasions call for special champions.
As part of the inaugural season of the UCI Women’s WorldTour, the 2016 Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields women’s race was already one for the history books even before the bunch lined up in Ypres with 115.3km to cover on the windswept roads leading to Wevelgem. And it only felt natural to see a star like the Netherlands’ Chantal van den Broek-Blaak (then Blaak) cap off a day dominated by her teammates from Boels-Dolmans CyclingTeam with a brilliant solo victory.
The weather conditions perfectly set up the Dutch powerhouse for a collective display of strength. “We like the wind so we’re excited,” Lizzie Deignan (then Armitstead) rejoiced at the start. A few months after winning the UCI World Championships in Richmond (USA), the British superstar came to Flanders as the woman to beat after dominating the Strade Bianche and the Trofeo Alfredo Binda – Comune di Cittiglio in the previous weeks.
The rest of the Boels-Dolmans CyclingTeam was star studded: Van den Broek-Blaak, who was yet to claim her rainbow jersey in Bergen (2017) but had already dominated the Ronde van Drenthe a couple of weeks earlier; Ellen van Dijk, boasting UCI World Champion titles on the road (ITT) and on the track; American National Champion Megan Guarnier; Luxembourg National Champion Christine Majerus and the powerful German Romy Kasper.
All of them would finish inside the top 21 in Wevelgem after a proper masterclass performance.
“The girls did such a good job”
The day’s main challenge was the Kemmelberg, a steep cobbled climb with slopes rising above 20%. The action started straight away. The peloton had already split in two and Lizzie Deignan was driving the leading bunch when they tackled the Kemmelberg for the first time, just 50km into the race.
Only 27 riders survived in the front group with 60km to go. Among them, the six riders from Boels-Dolmans looked unshakeable.
“It gives so much confidence if we’re all together,” the winner acknowledged after this team display. “We don’t need too many words, we look at each other and we know what to do.”
With continued action and leg sapping wind gusts, the women in orange kept their rivals under pressure as they travelled through the Flemish plains. The second ascent up the Kemmelberg was too much for the Belgian National Champion Jolien D’hoore and the Dutch National Champion Lucinda Brand.
With less than 40km to go, only 17 riders remained in the front group. Including Van den Broek-Blaak and her five teammates.
“That was impressive”, the Dutch champ said. “And the girls did such a good job. We started to play numbers.”
A full year of successes
UCI World Champion Armitstead went in with two digs. Rivals came back. Once. Twice. But when Van den Broek-Blaak attacked with 10km to go, her Dutch compatriot Annemiek van Vleuten (riding for Orica-AIS, the former Mitchelton-Scott) was a split second too slow to react, and Van den Broek-Blaak was just too strong.
“We were chasing at our maximum behind Chantal but the gap was getting bigger”, Van Vleuten described. “And then the Boels girls came to disturb our cooperation and we stopped the chase a bit.”
With a tailwind supporting her, Van den Broek-Blaak stormed to her second victory in the UCI Women’s WorldTour, moving into the lead of the overall standings. Some 1’24” behind her, Lisa Brennauer (Canyon-SRAM) dominated the sprint for the second.
As Van den Broek-Blaak celebrated her victory with a touch of disbelief, her teammates eased up. Van Dijk finished 8th, Kasper 10th, Guarnier 11th, Deignan17th and Majerus 21st.
Just a week later, Deignan would win the Tour of Flanders, with Van den Broek-Blaak coming 3rd (Guarnier was 4th and Van Dijk 6th). By the end of the season, Boels-Dolmans riders had won 10 of the 17 races in the UCI Women’s WorldTour and Guarnier dominated the overall standings with Deignan finishing 3rd and Van den Broek-Blaak 4th. A few months earlier, Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields had shown perfectly just how dominant the women in orange were.