Bonus Féminin Newsletter: Breaking Down the Women's Tour of Flanders

A impressive ride from Van Vleuten leaves the other big name favorites empty-handed in Oudenaarde

I haven’t broken down Women’s cycling in the past, but the reversion of a more normal racing schedule in 2021 and the increases in available TV/streaming coverage, along with races now taking place after the men’s, has made it possible for me to watch, and analyze more Women’s racing. I am starting a beta program on breaking down Women’s races and this is the first edition. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber if you want to support this additional content.

Annemiek van Vleuten won the Women’s Tour of Flanders with a trademark solo attack on the steep slopes of the cobbled Paterberg and was able to hold off the chasing group with a mixture of raw strength on her part and misaligned incentives in the group behind. Lisa Brennauer and Grace Brown rounded out the podium with second and third.

After a fast opening 100-kilometers which kept an early break from racking up any serious time gaps, the action really kicked off on the Kanarieberg, with Van Vleuten opening proceedings with an attack. This began a series of events that saw the favorites enter the base of the penultimate climb, the Oude Kwaremont, all together. Current World Champion Anna Van der Breggen set a blistering pace that set the stage for Van Vleuten’s race-winning attack on the final climb, the Paterberg. Despite everyone knowing it was coming, nobody could stop it and the Dutch rider soloed to her second-ever Flanders victory, a full ten years after her first.

Race Notes:

44km-to-go: On the Kanarieberg, Van Vleuten attacks, but is shut down immediately by Lizzie Deignan on Trek. The attack is directly into a headwind, meaning the move has little-to-no chance of success. This is either just overexcitement from Van Vleuten, or it signals she was feeling so strong that she thought it was worth expending the energy to throw down a tester move to see how the group would respond.

43km: After Deignan reels in Van Vleuten, her teammate, the current French road race champion Audrey Cordon-Ragot, counter-attacks, and immediately gets a decent gap. This is perfect for Trek as it gets them a rider up the road, thus putting pressure on the other teams to chase while they can sit in. Also, Cordon-Ragot is a two-time French TT champion, which means she is a threat to win if given too long a leash.

27km: Cordon-Ragot has a 50-second gap heading into the Kruisberg, but Anna van der Breggen, working for her SD-Worx teammates Demi Vollering, Chantal Blaak, and Amy Pieters, gets to the front and drills it on the difficult climb. Having one of the strongest riders in the history of the sport setting pace means Cordon-Ragot’s time out front is numbered. Also, notice BTP Podcast guest Kristen Faulkner in third place (green bike and helmet). She is isolated from her teammates at this point but has recovered from a crash with roughly 66km-to-go and gotten in the perfect position on this climb.

19km: At the base of the Kwaremont, Team BikeExchange has Sarah Roy on the front and is executing a modified sprint-finish lead out for team leader Grace Brown. They know the position you ride into the climb oftentimes dictates where you finish, so this is a key moment for Brown. Notice Faulkner on the far right of the frame is completely without teammates and has slipped back at this critical point.

17km: Once on the climb, Van der Breggen takes back over the pace-making duties and absolutely drills it. You can see how key Brown’s position going into the climb is at this point. She is visibly struggling in second but just has to hold pace and Vos is being dropped off the back. Even Van Vleuten appears to be on the limit as she stares at her stem in third place. Meanwhile, you can see Faulkner has been distanced in the background simply due to her position going into the climb.

17km-cont’d: The false-flat section following the steeper part of the Kwaremont is key since small gaps created on the steep wall can be blown open here. Impressively, Van der Breggen continues to hammer the pace, meaning anyone not in this front group won’t be able to catch back on. However, she is leaving teammates Blaak and Pieters behind.

16km: Another unsung section of Flanders is the wide-open paved rolling section following the false flat. Many enterprising riders have gotten clear here as the group attempts to catch their breath before the Paterberg, which is just a few kilometers down the road. Grace Brown tries a move here, and it is well-timed since Van der Breggen is resting at the back, but she is caught and countered by Van Vleuten. The duo are quickly reeled in, but Van Vleuten has signaled her intention.

13km: On the steepest section of the Paterberg, Van Vleuten wastes no time in attacking the group. She knows she will struggle to win a sprint against the rest, so she has to get clear here. The grade is so steep that she appears to struggle, even placing her own on a fence to avoid tipping over.

Van Vleuten only has a small gap (7-seconds) over Lisa Brennauer and Elisa Longo Borghini at the top of the climb, but oftentimes this can be enough on the Paterberg due to the paved false flat directly after the climb and indecision in the chase group.

Faulkner and Kasia Niewiadoma lead the rest of the chasers over the top 23-seconds after Brennauer. In theory, the race could still come back together.

11km: Van Vleuten’s gap is still only 7-seconds (the on-screen graphic is wrong) coming off the descent and the chasers are so close they can almost reach out and touch her.

The only problem is that it isn’t clear who will chase. The SD-Worx duo of Van der Breggen and Vollering are working seamlessly initially, but with riders like Brennauer and Longo-Borghini in the group, it can’t last. Van Vleuten, a seasoned veteran, likely knows that while in theory, the bigger group has the advantage, she is the only one fully dedicated to a single cause, while the chase group has a fragile alliance. If they want to pull her back, they have to close the gap down in the next kilometer or two.

9.6km: Helping Van Vleuten ever more is that further back in the third group, Faulkner, Niewiadoma and Marianne Vos are the only three working, with everyone else sitting on due to having teammates up the road. Notice the gap Leah Thomas (Van Vleuteon’s Movistar teammate) opens up when Faulkner swings off after taking a pull. This forced Faulkner back into third in the paceline and allows everyone behind Thomas to sit on.

7.6km: The chase group has allowed Van Vleuten to get a few more seconds, and really, the race is already over here. Longo-Borghini is sitting on the back, offering no help and waiting to pounce if the race comes back together while Vollering is working on the front. In addition to SD-Worx, FDJ also has two riders in here, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and Marta Cavalli. Neither are sprinters, so it makes sense they wouldn’t pull through to weld the race back together, but if they are going to sit on, they should be launching successive attacks from the back in an attempt to bridge up to Van Vleuten. Otherwise, what’s the point of getting two riders in the lead group?

2.2km: Van Vleuten’s gap is growing as the SD-Worx duo are the only ones mounting a real chase. Longo-Borghini, realizing the race won’t come back together by itself, is moving up to the front to take a few pulls, but the FDJ duo, after taking a few token pulls, sit at the back. I don’t quite understand the strategy here. They either needed to go all-in to make the bridge attempt or have one rider sacrifice themselves pulling on the front of the group.

Finish: Van Vleuten’s gap balloons to 26-seconds by the finish line and Brennauer absolutely destroys the rest in the sprint behind. Further back, Marlen Reusser and Faulkner have attacked the third group and will finish ahead of the fast-finishers like Lotte Kopecky and Vos in that group. This is the exact type of move one of the FDJ riders needed to attempt in the second group.

Final Top-Ten

Quick Takeaways:

  • Amazing win by Van Vleuten. Everyone knew she had to attack on the Paterberg yet nobody could stop it.

  • Kristen Faulkner is emerging as a legit Classics star in only her first real season as a professional rider. This is absurdly impressive, especially since the only reasons she missed the front group were tactical and positioning, not physical. Her attack to get away from the Vos/Niewiadoma group in the final 2km after doing a significant amount of work in that group confirms her strength. And remember, this could have been the winning move if the race had come back together (this is a completely objective analysis, however, a favorable opinion is absolutely for sale for the price of an appearance on the BTP Podcast).

Key Points

The Kwaremont

  • Looking back, Van der Breggen’s furious pace on and over the climb was decided the race. Anyone not present in the top few spots was out-the-back and the pace on the descent and into the Paterberg was too high to get back on.

  • I spoke to Faulkner for the BTP podcast after the race and she noted that the leadouts going into the climb were incredibly fast. And this makes sense. The BikeExchange leadout for Brown allowed her to make it up and over in the front group while Faulkner, who was in perfect position on the Kruisberg, was pushed too far back and missed out on the first group because of this.

The Paterberg

The Flat Section Afterwards

  • While the attack itself was amazing, Van Vleuten won the race from 12km-8km-to-go. Continuing to push it over the top and on the flat run-in while the chase group was dangling just behind was absolutely key. This, obviously, takes immense physical strength, but more importantly, requires a lot of mental fortitude. When most riders see a chasing group that close, it can be demoralizing and cause them to slow down, and in turn, be caught. But Van Vleuten knew she actually held the advantage there and if she could just hold the gap for a km or two, the elastic would snap.

  • On the flip side, if anyone in that chase group wanted to bridge up to her, this was the time. If one of the FDJ duo wanted to win the race, they needed to attack right as they came off the descent of the Paterberg.

  • At that point, the gap was small enough to close and if one of them could have made it up to her, neither are so good at sprinting that Van Vleuten would have stopped riding. A truce could have been struck to work together and then sprint it out, and while they might have lost, at least they are increasing their success profile. Maybe they win the sprint against Van Vleuten or maybe they lose, but at least they have a chance, versus waiting for the race to come back together and produce a larger sprint against faster riders, which leaves them almost no chance of success.

In Hindsight

  • If we look back and think about what anyone could have done differently to stop the seemingly unstoppable Van Vleuten, the answer isn’t obvious.

  • The only thing that stands out to me is if Brennauer could potentially have attacked and bridged across to Van Vleuten right after the Paterberg. However, she is fast enough in the sprint that perhaps Van Vleuten would have stopped working as soon as she made it up to her.

  • I do wonder if Van der Breggen’s hard riding on the Kwaremont only ended up helping Van Vleuten. Movistar lacked numbers, but Van der Breggen essentially acted as a shadow teammate with this pace-setting that set her up for her race-winning attack.

  • Also, this effort distanced her teammates and last year’s champion and runner-up, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak and Amy Pieters.

  • In addition to Van Vleuten, one of the main problems with SD-Worx’s strategy is that Brennauer is such a good all-rounder that she could win in a sprint if Van Vleuten was brought back, follow any attack and outsprint the co-attackers or win solo if she needed to.

  • If SD-Worx was going to do this race again, I wonder if they would try to get Van der Breggen, Blaak, or Pieters out in front of the race, so if Van Vleuten attacks, she is riding up to one of the strongest riders in the world, which would essentially walk her into a trap (a lot easier said than done).

  • In my mind, FDJ had the most confusing tactics in the finale. They had two non-sprinters in the front group, yet seemed content to sit and wait for the sprint. Getting across to Van Vleuten when the gap was small should have been the main priority, but even if they wanted to wait for the sprint, they needed to pick a rider to sit in and pick one to work all-out to pull Van Vleuten back.

  • Trek could potentially be criticized for sending such a strong team to the race and only getting a single rider in the front group, who then sat on and missed the podium. On the flip side, they seemed to get the outcome they wanted by getting Longo-Borghini into the lead group. If she is on a better day, this could be like shooting fish-in-a-barrel for her, and her subsequent sitting on and lack of a bridge attempt were due to simply being out-of-gas.

  • Once again, Brennauer, and even Brown, presented fundamental problems and their form on the day makes it difficult to imagine how Trek to come away with the win even if they get more riders over the Paterberg and pull back Van Vleuten.

Due to the postponement of Paris-Roubaix, the next Women’s race analysis will be the week of April 19th for the Amstel Gold Race.