Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team’s spring season success continued at Ronde van Vlaanderen on Sunday as world champion Lizzie Armitstead climbed to the top step of the podium in Oudenaarde following a nail-biting finale. The 27-year-old beat Swedish champion Emma Johansson (Wiggle High5) by a bike throw. A photo finish determined the winner.
“I knew in my gut that I had won because I knew my momentum took me over the top of her,” said Armitstead.
“Generally you know in that situation, but I didn’t dare risk it. I knew for certain when she congratulated me.”
“I’m delighted but it’s also a big relief,” Armitstead added. “I’ve got that win, that career goal done, and now it’s all about shifting focus. It’s a good way to start putting the spring behind me and thinking about Rio.”
Armitstead’s victory is her fourth in the rainbow jersey and the team’s eighth win on the road. The Dutch-registered squad has now won all five rounds of the inaugural UCI Women’s WorldTour series. Armitstead leads the series overall ahead of Blaak, who started Ronde van Vlaanderen in the series leader’s jersey.
Armitstead wins at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche and Trofeo Binda were part of her build to the race she’s called an unofficial women’s cycling Monument. Ever since she pulled on the rainbow jersey at the 2015 World Championships in Richmond, she’s been fielding questions about her 2016 season objectives. And each time she’s clearly responded that her season has been built around two races: The Tour of Flanders and the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Armitstead’s victory on Sunday has shown yet again that the 27-year-old can deliver on the days that matter most.
“It’s really special to win, and to win in the rainbow jersey is even more special,” said Armitstead. “It was the perfect day.”
The first half of the race proved fairly quiet. At various points along the route, riders would attempt to slip away solo or in small groups but none proved capable of gaining a lasting gap on the punch. The opening kilometres unfolded according to plan for Boels-Dolmans.
“Everyone had their role and everyone did it really well,” said Armitstead. “Up until the Kanarieberg, I never touched the wind. Christine [Majerus] was taking care of me from the start. She did that really well. I was never out of position, and it made a big difference today.”
The peloton split over the Kanarieberg. Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans) set a quick clip up the Kruisberg further forcing a selection. Twenty kilometres from the finish, a twenty-strong group reached the foot of the Oude Kwaremont. The group was selective but not selective enough for Boels-Dolmans.
“It came over the radio that Ellen [van Dijk] should make the race harder over Oude Kwaremont,” noted Armitstead. “The race was still too much together. My plan was to go on the Paterberg, and we needed it to be more aggressive so that I could get away.”
“Ellen set a really fierce pace over the Oude Kwaremont that sort of brought everyone on their knees,” Armitstead added.
Johansson launched two attacks in succession – one over the top of the Oude Kwaremont and one just beyond. The Swedish champion’s second attack proved decisive as Armitstead jumped on Johansson’s wheel. The duo immediately opened up a sizeable gap on the chasers.
“Emma didn’t give me a single turn into Paterberg, and I thought: ‘I’ll still make this work. I’ll attack her on Paterberg’ and I tried, but I couldn’t get her off my wheel,” said Armitstead. “A couple kilometres after the Paterberg, Emma decided to work, and we worked together until the final kilometre.”
Armistead led the duo under the flamme rouge with a ten second advantage over a chase group of eight. Despite the dwindling gap, Johansson refused a turn at the front, so Armitstead forced Johansson to open the sprint. The end result was a side-by-side sprint for the top step of the podium.
“It was a really strange race with just two in the front,” said Armitstead. “We had to commit. I didn’t leave anything for the sprint. Emma’s fast, and I didn’t underestimate her.”
“It was a poker game in the end,” she added. “I didn’t have any radio, so I didn’t know what was happening. I needed her to open the sprint before me, and she did. At that point, it’s not about who is fastest, it’s who is freshest. I was tired, and you could see that in my sprint. It was a race all the way to the line.”
Armitstead is back in action when the UCI Women’s WorldTour series continues on 20 April with La Flèche Wallone. Boels-Dolmans line up for the Energiewacht Tour on Wednesday