Chantal Blaak won the second round of the UCI Women’s World Cup, the Ronde van Drenthe, in Hoogeveen on Saturday. The Dutchwoman was part of a four-rider breakaway that slipped away from a reduced peloton with 55-kilometres still to race.
“I’ve been racing Drenthe since 2008, and I’m so happy that I’m finally able to win here,” said Blaak. “I didn’t expect that we could ride away so early in the race. Sixty kilometres from the finish, I led the peloton onto the last cobblestones, and just after that section, we were away with the four of us.”
“The cooperation was good, and my choice was to gamble for the sprint.”
Blaak has had a stellar spring, coming second in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to teammate Lizzie Armitstead and following up with the victory in Le Samyn four days later. Her win in Drenthe is her second victory of the season and the fifth road victory for Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team.
“It’s March,” cautioned Blaak. “I’m careful to say that because so much can happen during the season. We’ve only just begun. There are so many races still coming up. We try to make the best out of every race, but every day we start from zero.”
Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team brought a strong squad to tackle the cobbles, climbs and crosswinds of Saturday’s Dutch classic. Headlined by world champion and UCI Women’s WorldTour leader Lizzie Armitstead, the six-rider squad had a plan that offered plenty of options.
“The plan today was to race aggressively,” said Blaak. “That’s all the plan was. Race aggressively and see what happens. Drenthe is really difficult, and the weather was not the best. Well, it was good weather, but good weather doesn’t make for good racing.”
“You can’t tell already before this race how it’s going,” Blaak added. “The peloton is too big and too hectic, and the race is too hard.”
Christine Majerus was a frequent figure on the front of the bunch during the first half of the race. The Luxembourg champion won the first GPM, awarded to the first rider to reach the top of the first ascent of the VAM-berg. Majerus led the peloton onto the first cobble section before winning the first intermediate sprint.
“The team is unbelievable,” said Blaak. “Romy [Kasper], Nikki [Harris], Christine – actually all of them. They are all so good at riding at the front. I struggle with that. I prefer sometimes to be a bit behind and come to the front only when it’s really important.”
“You know, with them, it’s so easy,” Blaak added. “You know they will always be there. If they’re not there, something is wrong. They did a really good job at the beginning of the race.”
Before the mid-point of the race, Armitstead climbed off her bike. The world champion had fallen ill on Tuesday but hoped she could ride through her illness. It proved to big of an ask.
“We knew that she wasn’t totally recovered,” said sport director Danny Stam. “We had already talked about Chantal as the option for today, and you can see, it worked out well.”
“It’s a shame Lizzie was sick,” Blaak added. “When she fell out, of course that wasn’t the best situation for us.
You always miss the strongest girl of the team, but without Lizzie, the plan didn’t change. I think it was really good for all of us to stick to the plan and show we still believe we can do it.”
Blaak backed herself in the group of four that split away from the reduced bunch. Trixi Worrack (CANYON//SRAM), Gracie Elvin (ORICA-AIS), Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv) and Blaak collaborated ahead a chasing group led Wiggle-High5.
“At first I didn’t know if we would stay away,” said Blaak. “Wiggle had missed it, and I heard they were riding hard behind. We worked pretty well together, which was good because otherwise we would not stay away. The first 20-kilometres in that group was so hard because we had to work so hard to make the gap.”
By the final ascent of the VAM-berg, Wiggle-High5 had called off the chase. The gap had stretched out to two minutes, and the chase group had swollen to more than three times its original size.
“That’s when I believed we would stay away,” said Chantal. “Then I was thinking about what I do in the final.”
Blaak opted to take her chances in a sprint.
“I had a lot of confidence from the last two races,” she explained, referencing Het Nieuwsblad and Le Samyn.
“To wait is always a risk. You never know. You know only how your legs are. You cannot feel the rest. I believed in my legs, so that was a good thing. But you’re never sure before you cross the finish line, so I was nervous.”
Van der Breggen attacked in the final kilometre but was unable to gain an advantage. Elvin opened the sprint.
“Gracie went very early and that surprised me a bit,” said Blaak. “I was able to jump in her wheel and finish the race with the win. Because the team has had so much success, I really wanted to finish things off. That’s what motivated me.”
Boels-Dolmans is back in action on Sunday at the Drentse Acht van Westerveld (Drentse 8). Karol Ann Canuel, Demi de Jong and Kasia Pawlowska bring fresh legs to join Harris, Majerus and Megan Guarnier in the Netherlands.