Lucinda Brand tops Dutch podium at European season’s opener

It has been a long wait for most of the riders in the peloton. For anyone that hasn’t gone Down Under for the races in Australia back in January, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad isn’t just the European season’s opener, but their 2017 opening race. The tension was palpable at the start…

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It has been a long wait for most of the riders in the peloton. For anyone that hasn’t gone Down Under for the races in Australia back in January, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad isn’t just the European season’s opener, but their 2017 opening race. The tension was palpable at the start in Gent, as everyone is eager to start off their season in a successful way.

With Astana Women’s Team not taking to the start and both Hitec Products and Lares-Waowdeals not lining up a full team, 159 riders set off from Flemish Cycling Centre Eddy Merckx this morning to take on nine climbs and six cobble sections before arriving back in Gent after 122 kilometers of racing.

With the rain of last week absent from Flanders, it was cold and sunny when the riders started their race. So it wouldn’t be the rain, but the wind that was going to play the biggest role in today’s race.

Straight from the start, 21-year old Demmy Druyts attacked. She didn’t get anyone with her and so the Sport Vlaanderen-Etixx-Guille d’Or rider set out on her own. At the first climb of the day, the Nokereberg, she had reached an advantage of over 3 minutes. Putting in some hard work on her own against the headwind, she had an unexpectedly long run off the front.

Druyts even managed to grow her advantage when reaching the next climb, the Tiegemberg, as she started her ascent 3’30” ahead of the bunch. However, her gap started to decrease from this point onward and at the Kluisberg it had gone down to about 1’30”.

With the wind wreaking havoc now, a large group of riders was getting dropped from the back of the peloton on the Kluisberg, as Druyts was slowly being reeled in. After 55 kilometers of racing on her own, Druyts once again found herself in the protection of the peloton.

Traditionally the sector in the race where the race starts ‘for real’, the Côte de Trieu – after 61 kilometers of racing – again proved to be an important part of the race, as the bunch split in two in the run up to this climb. With the gap between the two groups increasing quickly in the tailwind section after the Trieu, any rider not in that first bunch had lost their chance for a good result or a win.

Team Sunweb, Boels-Dolmans and Wiggle-High5 led the bunch up the Paterberg, only a couple of kilometers after the Côte de Trieu. As the peloton got shattered again on this combination of climbs, like in previous editions, Ellen van Dijk (Team Sunweb) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5) found themselves off the front, with Christine Majerus (Boels-Dolmans), Lotte Kopecky (Lotto-Soudal), Elena Cecchini (Canyon-SRAM) and Gracie Elvin (Orica-Scott) closely following.

While the chasing quartet was quickly caught back by the peloton, Van Dijk and Longo Borghini held their lead and increased it to over a minute quickly. A very strong duo, both incredible time trialists, it looked like they might have a chance to go for the win if they survived the last four climbs in the race.

Kortekeer, Ladeuze and de Wolvenberg proved no problem for Van Dijk and Longo Borghini, and they started the final climb of the day, de Molenberg, almost 1’30” ahead of a chase group of 25.

Neither Van Dijk nor Longo Borghini have won this race in the past, Van Dijk having come closest with her second place behind Anna van der Breggen in 2015. The chase group identified the danger of giving this duo too much space, so attacks started to come from behind in the final 30 kilometers of the race.

Five riders managed to breakaway eventually: Chantal Blaak (Boels-Dolmans), Lotte Kopecky (Lotto-Soudal), Lucinda Brand (Team Sunweb) and both Amanda Spratt and Annemiek van Vleuten of Orica-Scott – Brand obviously not helping out to close the gap, but being in there for some teammate support for Van Dijk.

Cyclocrosser Christine Majerus had no problem with the unexpected running.

Brand and Blaak jumped from the chase group to the leading duo, with Kopecky, Spratt and Van Vleuten left behind. It looked like Team Sunweb now had the advantage of numbers with 20 kilometers to go – but Spratt and Van Vleuten, showing their class, managed to get to the front a little later as well.

Although she holds a decent sprint herself, Brand was the first of the leaders to start an attack, not wanting to take her chances with Blaak in the group. Her first attack was unsuccessful, but she did managed to get away on a second attempt.

With a 10 second advantage, Brand went into the final 5 kilometers of the race by herself. Van Dijk being able to help out in the back, Brand was able to hold this gap and arrived at the finish line solo, to win her first road race of the season.

Behind her, Blaak once again won the sprint for second place, like she did last year. Van Vleuten made it a full Dutch podium by sprinting to third place. Van Dijk and Longo Borghini crossed the line in fourth and fifth, with Spratt having had to let the chase group go some kilometers before, and finishing sixth.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was Brand’s first road race of the season after a full cyclocross season last winter – in which she was quite successful too, getting on the podium at the World Cup race in Hoogerheide and finishing fourth in the World Cyclocross Championships. Apparently, she didn’t need any adjusting back to road racing!

“I started the Molenberg first and when the attacks went we got away in a small group. Ellen held the gap strong in front which was good for me, then I bridged across on the cobblestones when the gap came down,” Brand explains the race.

“With about 10km to go we started attacking. I had my final attack with about 5km to go – this was really hard but Ellen did a great job behind reacting to everything.”

Van Dijk was also very happy seeing her team mate win, as she took to Twitter: “Fourth place never felt so good! Great, great racing & teamwork from Team Sunweb. So much fun playing the game today.”

Looking back on the race, Blaak commented: “We did our best. We did everything we could. We had such bad luck today, and I think second was the maximum. I’m happy with how I raced and with the team. I know it’s not possible to have another season like last year where we win everything, but here I’ve finished always fourth and third and second. It would have been nice to win.” Both her and Pieters, who were team leaders at Boels-Dolmans, had to chase at several points in the race because of crashes or technical problems.

One of the teams that was notably absent from the front of the race was WM3 Pro Cycling. DS Jeroen Blijlevens says: “Kasia Niewiadoma had good legs, but unfortunately had a crash on the Paddestraat. We are looking forward to next week’s Strade Bianche. It’s a race that suits Kasia better than this one.”

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