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This story appeared in the January/February print issue of VeloNews Magazine.
Belgium’s Danilith Nokere Koerse has, for years, played to the strengths of explosive sprinters who are also impeccable bike handlers. This past March, during the race’s inaugural women’s edition, it was no surprise to see Amy Pieters, Lisa Klein, and the peloton’s other versatile sprinters jostle for position in the race’s finale.
And then, with a burst of unmatched speed, a little-known Dutch rider named Lorena Wiebes shot from the peloton as if she were propelled by a rocket. As the cobblestone lane to the finish line tilted upward, Wiebes opened a bike length up on the field, then stretched it to two. Her advantage was so great that Wiebes had time to raise her hand skyward in a victory salute as she coasted across the line. It was a shocking win by the 20-year-old, and nobody was more surprised than Wiebes herself.
“That is where it all started for me this year,” Wiebes told VeloNews, replaying the scene. “I had wanted to grow from where I was last year, but I grew a bit more than I expected, because I didn’t really do anything more in training. I really didn’t expect it.”
The victory was the start of a dream season that saw Lorena Wiebes stamp her place amongst the sport’s very best in just her second year as a professional rider. Over the course of six months Wiebes won 15 races, plus multiple jersey awards, in major events like the Boels Ladies Tour and Ladies Tour of Norway. She took the Dutch national road race ahead of Marianne Vos, and then won the Prudential RideLondon Classique in a chaotic sprint against the sport’s top sprinters.
Wiebes ended the season as the No. 1 rider in the world in the UCI individual rankings, ahead of Vos and even World Champion Annemiek van Vleuten. Not bad for rider who was pedaling junior gears two seasons ago.
However, Weibes’s rapid rise has also brought a number of new challenges. In late 2019 she decided she wanted to leave her Dutch team, Parkhotel Valkenberg, in order to sign with a larger WorldTour squad for 2020. In Wiebes’s perspective, she had simply outgrown the smaller Dutch development squad, and she was ready for a WorldTour contract.
But Wiebes was still under contract with the smaller Dutch squad. The tension created a months-long battle in the press that was only recently settled.
It seems Lorena Wiebes’s rapid rise really did catch everyone off-guard.
A rapid rise
Wiebes stands 5 foot 6 and boasts a toothy smile. On her right arm, she has the words “Forever in my heart” tattooed in arabic script; her brother and father have similar tattoos. She is chatty and forthcoming, and is quick to give credit to her teammates for her various victories.
“She is very humble,” says retired Dutch pro Andre Boskamp, her agent. “She is quick to give credit to others.”
Wiebes discovered cycling as a child; her father raced as an amateur on the road, and persuaded her to race cyclocross at age nine. She was hesitant to try road cycling, and her first races on the road did not go well.
“I didn’t like to ride in the peloton, and then I crashed,” Wiebes said. “From then, it was over for a few years until I started a national race.”
Wiebes blossomed into an exceptional cyclocross racer, and was competitive at a national level in her early teens. In 2016, her first year in the elite junior category, she again tried out road racing, and quickly excelled. She won races in Belgium and Holland, often by waiting for the end and then unleashing a sprint, winning the Dutch junior national title in such a manner. Later that year she added a junior national title in track racing to her growing palmares.
Success at that age often speaks to the potential for international success. Yet in the Netherlands, which has scores of talented up-and-comers, Wiebes was just another strong youngster within a sea of talent. When it came time for the Dutch federation to choose a squad for the world championships, Wiebes was left off.
“The coaches didn’t select me for the national team because he thought I was not good enough at the moment,” Wiebes said. “The worlds were in Qatar, which was perfect for me.”
Rather than stew on the snub, Wiebes used it to fuel her 2017 campaign, her final year in the juniors. Wiebes won three of four stages and the overall at the Healthy Aging Tour, as well as the European junior road title, and scores of one-day races across the Low Countries.
Former Dutch Olympian Loes Gunnewijk, now coach of the junior program, directed Wiebes at several junior events that year. She was impressed with Wiebes’s physical gifts; it was the youngster’s analytic attitude toward racing, however, that stood out.
“You could see she already had a plan for the final. She knew the corners and knew which wheels she wanted to be sitting on,” Gunnewijk said. “She won the sprint. It was impressive at that age to see how smart she was.”
Later that summer, Gunnewijk then directed Wiebes at the European championships in Denmark. As the junior women’s peloton pedaled toward the finishing circuit, a group of three riders broke free. The Dutch team had riders to help Wiebes navigate the sprint, but the team was cautious not to burn its riders up too early. When the breakaway appeared to be too dangerous, Wiebes herself ordered her team onto the front.
“She had them do a leadout train to break [the breakaway] back and told them she would find her own way in the sprint,” Gunnewijk said. “She put herself in the Italian sprint train and she won. It was nice to see how she directed the other girls to make a new plan in the race.”
Sprinting to the WorldTour’s top
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Wiebes idolizes Peter Sagan as a hero; Sagan’s ability to navigate the chaos of a final kick to the line has helped make him the sport’s most valuable rider. Likewise, Wiebes isn’t afraid to take chances in the push to the line. She also recognizes when those changes overstep a boundary.
During the final stage of the Ladies Tour of Norway, the women’s peloton thundered toward the finish in Askim, and Wiebes darted through the pack to gain an advantage. Her arm linked with that of American Coryn Rivera, and for a millisecond, the two looked destined to crash. They avoided catastrophe.
After the stage, Wiebes apologized to Rivera for taking a risk that nearly caused a crash.
“It was all cool, and I can respect that she’s really young and really hungry, and she was very professional about everything,” Rivera said. “I think it’s cool to have someone so young beating up on the veterans because it reminds you that you were once that kid coming through the ranks.”
Wiebes’s rocket-like trajectory may put her on a pathway toward future obstacles, ones that she may be unable to avoid. She faced a major setback at the end of the 2019 season, when the Dutch team again snubbed her for the UCI world road championships in Yorkshire. Rather than take the best sprinter, The Netherlands chose a collection of climbers, including Annemiek van Vleuten, who won the road race.
“I was really disappointed and I didn’t know the reason I was [not selected],” Wiebes said. “Did they think I was not strong enough, or that I wouldn’t work for the team—I don’t know.”
The next major setback is likely to come later this year, when the Dutch team announces its squad for the Tokyo Olympics. On paper, the course caters to versatile riders who can climb and sprint. Wiebes’s rapid rise would make her a valuable rider for any country with Olympic ambitions.
But for the Dutch, Vos, van Vleuten, and van der Breggen are obvious choices, leaving just one spot to go to one of The Netherland’s many talented female riders. Wiebes expects to be overlooked for the Olympic squad.
“There are not many spots and we have so many strong girls,” Wiebes said about her chances in Tokyo. “I hope to be in Paris.”
And the final hurdle Wiebes will need to overcome involves the static with her development team, Parkhotel Valkenberg. In 2018 Wiebes inked a three-year deal with the development team, believing a longer contract would allow her to mature slowly as a pro rider without the pressure of a looming contract renewal. Instead, it was Wiebes who progressed faster than expected.
“It’s really sad for the team, but I want to keep growing, and the only hope I have for that is to leave the team,” Wiebes said. “I’m grateful for the team and for my teammates, but it’s time to go.”
Unfortunately for Wiebes, leaving the team was not so easy. In late 2019 she put out a press release announcing her intentions to leave the squad, and appeared to be free to leave. And then, Parkhotel Valkenberg brought the case to court, arguing that Wiebes was in breach of contract if she wanted to leave.
The ordeal dragged out for a few weeks until, in early 2020, Wiebes and Parkhotel Valkenberg reached a deal. She would continue to race with the squad for the first half of 2020, being freed to sign with a new team upon the transfer window’s opening on June 1.
“My ambitions and especially my vision clashed very much with the management of the Parkhotel team,” Wiebes said after the deal was struck. “We have now found certain solutions, for the first half year, and made agreements that I am as little as possible bothered by the management around me,”
It seems Lorena Wiebes may be headed for the sport’s pinnacle, if six months behind schedule.