Olympic road champion Anna van der Breggen soloed to victory in Valkenburg on Sunday. The Dutchwoman launched the race-winning move at Amstel Gold Race from a six-rider breakaway that included 2016 world champion Lizzie Deignan. Fifty-five seconds after Van der Breggen claimed the top step of the podium, Deignan out-smarted and out-sprinted the chase group to give Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team a one-two punch in its home region.
“This was the big goal of the spring – not only this race but the upcoming two races,” said Van der Breggen. “I’m happy to have this shape finally now. You can gamble on this week, but it’s always hard to have the right shape at the right time.”
Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team circled a new-look Ardennes week in the fall as the main target for the 2017 season. The three hilly UCI Women’s WorldTour races over eight days offered a tantilising new challenge. A later season target meant a sacrifice in earlier season results. The most dominant team of last spring faced repeated questions over the last six weeks. The results at Amstel Gold Race provided an emphatic response.
“As a cyclist, you become accustomed to pressure and expectations and difficult questions being pointed at you if the performances aren't reflective of the work you have put in,” said Deignan. “It's frustrating but with experience you learn not to let it bother you. You keep your head down and you work hard and the results will follow. Today was a result of not giving up or giving too much energy to media or fan expectation.”
“It’s difficult to have this shape for three months,” added Van der Breggen. “It’s not possible. If you’re good at the beginning of the season, it’s difficult to be as good this week, and this is an important week because if you’re good, you have three big races."
Van der Breggen and Deignan shared a leadership role on Easter Sunday. Both had contended with illness during the opening weeks of the season but arrived on the start line in Maastricht feeling fit and motivated ahead of the 121-kilometre day.
“We planned for an aggressive race,” said Deignan. “With both me and Anna healthy again, we felt it was possible to shoulder the responsibility of four of the team tasked with putting the rest of the peloton in the hurt box.”
Chantal Blaak, Karol-Ann Canuel, Amy Pieters and Megan Guarnier, back in the bunch for the first time since her crash at Omloop Hageland in February, attacked the early climbs and put the race in the gutter in the wind over the top. Their work translated into early attrition and mid-race splits. Before the first 66-kilometre opening lap had been completed, the peloton was reduced to 35 riders. All six Boels-Dolmans riders had made the selection.
The second ascent of the Cauberg further split the group. Blaak, Deignan and Van der Breggen were part of an eight-rider breakaway that led across the second passage of the finish line. When they were caught, Pieters countered. She gained a small gap before she was joined first by Audrey Cordon (Wiggle-High5) and then Roxanne Knetemann (FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope) and Tatiana Riabchenko (Lensworld-Kuota).
When the quartet was swept up on the lowers slopes of the third time up the Cauberg, Deignan lifted the pace further, escaping with Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5) and Kasia Niewiadoma (WM3 Energie).
“I was contributing as much as Elisa and Kaisa,” said Deignan. “I was confident if I went to the line with them that I could win, but the commitment from all three of us was not enough to really stay away.”
With the leaders not fully committed to the escape and a strong chase led largely by Ellen van Dijk (Team Sunweb), the gap held steady between 10-20 seconds for the first half of the final lap.
Annemiek van Vleuten (ORICA-SCOTT) attacked the third time up the Bemelerberg, the 16th of 17 climbs. Van der Breggen marked the move as did UCI Women’s WorldTour leader Coryn Rivera (Team Sunweb). The trio bridged across to Deignan, Longo Borghini and Niewiadoma.
With eight kilometres left, including the fourth and final time up the Cauberg, six riders had a 13-second advantage over approximately 16 chasers.
“That was the plan – for me to attack on the Cauberg two laps out and for Anna to counter,” Deignan explained. “It was exactly to plan as Anna bridged over to the break I had formed. It was difficult to communicate but I knew if Anna had good legs she would go, When she made her move I had a smile on my face because I knew she would win.”
Van der Breggen made that race-winning move with a bit more than seven kilometres left to race. Her jump afforded her an immediate ten-second gap, and she hit the base of the Cauberg with a 30-second lead. It was plenty to hold off her challengers. An elated Van der Breggen celebrated across the line alone.
In Van der Breggen’s wake, Deignan won a tactically nuanced chase group sprint to snag best of the rest.
“There was a cross-wind from the left, so I rode tight on the right-hand barrier, knowing whoever started the sprint would have to do so into the wind,” said Deignan. “I kept one eye on everyone in my wheel and jumped when I saw that they had started.”
Deignan pointed to the Boels Rental and Dolmans Group jersey on her rainbow-banded orange jersey as she crossed the line ahead of Niewiadoma and Van Vleuten, who were afforded a rare tie for third place.
“As a team, we rode very well,” Deignan said. “We all feel confident and excited ahead of the rest of the week. It’s exciting that a team with full health can race aggressively and play the beautiful tactic game again. That’s where we excel.”