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Demi Vollering’s palmarès so far this season includes wins at Strade Bianche, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Amstel Gold Race, and now Flèche Wallonne as well as second at Brabantse Pijl, and the Tour of Flanders.
She went into Wednesday’s race as the absolute favorite, but still, the 26-year-old says she wasn’t entirely confident before the start.
“I was pretty nervous. It’s such a hard climb and I was very nervous that I was not good enough,” Vollering told the media post-race. “I did not feel so good, I was pretty nauseous the whole time and also it was so early today of course and that makes you feel a bit sleepy I think. They [her team] kept on saying ‘okay Demi we believe in you, keep your focus’.”
To watch her, it would have been impossible to interpret any self-doubt in the way she took the race on. On the final ascent of the Cote de Cherave, Vollering sat on the front turning a pace that distanced all but eleven riders, including the rest of her SD Worx team.
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While putting some of the peloton’s best climbers under pressure, Vollering looked composed, even looking over her shoulder to assess the damage while Kasia Niewiadoma grimaced on her wheel. Niewadoma’s teammate, Elise Chabbey sat behind her while Trek-Segafredo and Movistar also had two riders each present with Elisa Longo Borghini, Gaia Realini, Liane Lippert, and Annemiek van Vleuten.
After leading the group on the descent Vollering started to sit up and look around on the flat. Niewiadoma took the lull as an opportunity to attack but was promptly shut down by Vollering, who proceeded to reinstate herself at the front once again.
Vollering stayed at the front of the group, looking behind her every so often like a track racer in a match sprint, anticipating the forthcoming attacks that she, and everyone watching, was expecting.
It looked like she was doing too much work, her isolation seemed to present the perfect opportunity for one of the others who had a numerical advantage to attack at a time when, by rights, she should have been under pressure. The kilometers to go until the Mur ticked down, and still nobody took Vollering on, opting to save their legs for the climb.
Even when the second group came back, Vollering stayed on the front before finally merging back into the wheels as they approached the lower slopes of the climb. It wasn’t for long, though. As Riccarda Bauernfiend of Canyon-SRAM moved to the front to set the pace for Niewiadoma, Vollering comfortably rode up to her wheel before coming past her and finding herself back on the front once more.
Turning into a steeper section of the climb, Vollering kicked again, taking Niewiadoma with her before the Polish rider was also steadily distanced. Front-on TV images showed Vollering breathing and pedaling rhythmically as those behind bared gritted teeth, rocking over their handlebars as their bikes swayed from side to side.
Liane Lippert, using her whole body to squeeze out what power she could, passed a fading Niewiadoma and managed to ride right up to Vollering with 300m to go, had the SD Worx rider done too much earlier on?
Seemingly oblivious to the threat of Lippert behind, however, Vollering continued to tap out her metronomic style without looking back while Lippert rocked from side-to-side behind, with 200m to go, the German champion lost contact with Vollering. Only after the final turn did Vollering look behind to see the struggling Lippert well and truly distanced alongside Mavi Garcia.
Usually one of the peloton’s more expressive riders, Vollering had barely made her discomfort visible on her face on her way up the Huy, but having seen the damage she had caused, confirming her win, she broke into a smile, finally getting out of the saddle.
At the top of a climb that usually has riders collapsing with exhaustion after they cross the line, Vollering had the energy to emphatically remove her glasses and pump her arms before sitting up to celebrate her victory.
She started the day unsure about her form and finished it surprised by her dominance.
“I was the whole time thinking ‘okay now they come around.’ But then I looked behind and I was like ‘oh, nobody’s here,’” Vollering said of her ascent of the Mur. “I really thought they were still behind me, so I looked again and I could not believe that there was such a big gap because I really thought that they could come around me then but they were not.”
Vollering’s win now sits alongside her Amstel Gold victory from last Sunday and raises the question of whether she can complete the first Ardennes hat trick since her director, Anna van der Breggen, in 2017.
“It’s important of course but Sunday is a whole different race and also a really hard race. But a race that I really like and what suits me so I hope we can do there again a really good race.” If it is anything like her performance at Flèche Wallonne, however, then Vollering is a shoo-in for the triple.