How SD Worx used numbers to beat Van Vleuten and Balsamo

The Dutch team put three riders in the top five and, of course, won.

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It’s been a weird start to the year for SD Worx. Generally the team to beat on any terrain, the Dutch team came into the Tour of Flanders with a few favourites, but not the favourites. In the leadup to the race, the main question was how could SD Worx beat the 2021 Flanders winner Annemiek van Vleuten and the unstoppable Elisa Balsamo. The answer? Fire.

“We’ll make a hard race,” Demi Vollering said before the race when asked about Balsamo. “That’s the goal of course, and we are not the only team who wants a really hard race, also Movistar with Annemiek. They also will show some fire.”

And fire is what they brought.

By the Oude Kwaremont, SD Worx had Marlen Reusser at the front of affairs with Lotte Kopecky and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak in a crucial split behind. As the race crested the Paterberg all three riders were still within spitting distance of the victory.

“It was the plan I attack after Kruisberg and then it was a bit strange because we had this group without any favourites off the front already and we were like ‘do we stick to the plan or not’, I think it was an impulse to do it and it was the right idea,” Reusser said after the race.

For a moment, as the race closed in on the Paterberg, it looked like SD Worx’s tactics weren’t very clear. Reusser was leading the race by around 13 seconds with Brodie Chapman of FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope. The only person chasing was Van Vleuten, who even had a teammate with her in the group but was still left to fight alone.

As the race closed in on the final climb, Van den Broek-Blaak dove in front of Van Vleuten and increased the chasing speed significantly. She had Kopecky with her in the chase, the winner of Strade Bianche and clearly a rider on good form, but chasing down one’s own teammate is always a little confusing. Especially when Van Vleuten won Flanders in 2021 with a blistering attack on the Paterberg, having a rider already ahead of the race is an ideal situation.

Van Vleuten attacks on the Paterberg.

“When I was with Marlen I knew maybe we could play for the win,” Chapman said. “But when it came back on the Paterberg with Van Vleuten and Kopecky I was just trying to stay in the group and hold on for as long as I could.”

The gamble more than paid off when Kopecky held on to Van Vleuten’s wheel on the final ascent and Reusser and Van den Broek-Blaak joined them in a leading group of six at the head of the race. Even in that group, SD Worx had the numbers, but Van den Broek-Blaak still attacked, drawing out Van Vleuten and Kopecky. It was the perfect move, bringing the group down to just three, two of which were SD Worx.

“For sure we knew [Kopecky] was super strong and also it gives some extra power if you have the whole country behind you and it’s so important this race, I think she was the most motivated, even if we were all motivated,” Reusser said. “In this team, as there is so many riders that can win the race it’s never on one person.”

Van den Broeck-Blaak attacks up the left side, drawing out Van Vleuten.

By the time the race reached the final 10 km, Van den Broek-Blaak was the only one of the three in the wind. The sprint would be between Van Vleuten and Kopecky, and 9.5 times out of 10 you’d pick Kopecky to win.

Van Vleuten tried to open the sprint up and get a bit of a jump on the Belgian champion but Kopecky is the better sprinter, and with a powerful serge she became only the second Belgian woman to win the Tour of Flanders.

“I am proud to be again in the mix, fighting for the win in this race is not easy,” Van Vleuten said. “If you know you’re going to the line with Lotte Kopecky, she is a super fast sprinter, you know after the Paterberg the options are running out.”

“For me it was sad that the middle part was not raced so hard. We arrived with, for me, a too big bunch to the Koppenberg to drop riders like Kopecky. Especially on those climbs here are so short I need a super hard race.”

In the end, Balsamo wasn’t even part of the conversation, and neither was the rest of her team. SD Worx finished with three in the top five and in a shocking turn of events FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope managed to get three in the top 10 after Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and Grace Brown joined Brodie Chapman in the chase. Balsamo finished a minute and 13 seconds behind the winner.

“It was a really cool final. Christine was already in the front and Marlen in the group,” Vollering said at the finish. “This is a really cool victory. This was a really big dream for [Kopecky] so I’m really really happy for her.”

“It’s quite overwhelming,” said Kopecky after the victory. “I am very thankful to my teammates, this victory is not only for me but for them. Chantal in particular was fantastic.”

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