Tuesday 19 March 2013

Ronde van Vlaanderen 2013

31.03.2013 Official Site
Belgium, One-day Monument/World Cup Road Race, 128.8km

The Ronde is finally added to Vos' palmares
With fifteen UCI Elite Women's events and four continental championships already raced, the Ronde van Vlaanderen was the first Monument of the year in men's and women's racing. It's a race with a long history: the men's race was first held in 1913 and, over the years, it's become considered the joint most prestigious alongside next weekend's legendary Paris-Roubaix, for which reason it's contested by the best riders - a list of winning men reads like a list of the most famous cyclists of all time: Schotte, van Steenbergen, Magni, Simpson, Merckx, de Vlaeminck, Museeuw, Boonen, Cancellara. The women's race is of far more recent vintage, having first been held in 2004, but already the roll call of winners is a list of the greatest riders in the sport: Zabirova (2004), Melchers-van Poppel (2005/2006), Cooke (2007), Arndt (2008/2012), Teutenberg (2009), Verbeke (2010), van Vleuten (2011).

One name surprisingly wasn't on that list until 2013. Marianne Vos was a favourite to win in 2012 but had to be replaced at the last moment by Sarah Düster due to catching the 'flu; she was, predictably and entirely justifiably, delighted after winning in thrilling style despite feeling ill before the race again this year. She'll no doubt be pleased that she had to fight for it, too: two years ago, the Dutch rider seemed without equal, now there are several riders who have trained long and hard to be able to rival her and women's cycling has become more competitive as a result. Marianne, who loves only her sport more than she loves winning, probably takes as much satisfaction from knowing that she caused that as she does from being able to say that she has now won all the major competitions in women's road cycling.

The Race
Click to enlarge
Some races retain the same route year after year - and understandably so, as sending route finders out on reconnaissance missions costs money that could be spent on other aspects of the event (this is especially true in women's cycling as many races are run on shoestring budgets). The Ronde, meanwhile, tends to change with each edition as organisers add new sections and alter the order in which the hills are climbed, making them more or less decisive than in years past - but not this year, when the route was almost identical to 2012 with only a small alteration near Gavere some 11.5km in while Molenberg, missed out last year, became the first climb and Rekelberg, first last year, was second.

It remained  as classically a Flandrian race as can be, featuring a hard and challenging parcours with several cobbled sections that, despite lack of rain, were made especially dangerous by the potential for icy patches in sheltered areas due temperatures not much above freezing point - a nasty crash en route to Molenberg forced Jessie Maclean (Orica-AIS) out of the race when she hit her head, though she escaped injury. The Ronde, like many of the other races in Flanders, is also famous for the numerous short but very steep climbs - Rekelberg, for example: the average gradient over its 0.8km is 4% which doesn't sound too bad, but the steepest part at a painful 9% would be more than enough to persuade many non-professional cyclists to get off and push. Oh - and it was the easiest climb in the race. Paterberg, the toughest, has an average gradient of 12.9% and a maximum 20.3% - in Flemish, that's known as brutaal.

Click to enlarge

The climbs were Molenberg, 37.8km, average 7%, maximum 14.2% (a few riders had to dismount and run up); Rekelberg, 52.4km, av. 4%, max. 9%; Berendries, 57.8km, av. 7%, max. 12.3%; Valkenberg, 63.1km, av. 8.1%, max. 12.8%; Kaperij, 75.4km, 5.5%, max. 9%; Kanarieberg, 82.8km, av. 7.7%, max. 14%; Kruisberg/Hotond, 91.2km, av. 5%, max. 9%; Oude Kwaremont, 101km, av. 4%, max. 11.6% and Paterberg, 104.4km, av. 12.9%, max. 20.3%; Hoogberg/Hotond, 111.4km, av. 3.5%, max. 8%. Few riders troubled themselves with trying to break away, perhaps preferring to stay with the pack to keep warm; special mention must go to Suzanne Zorzi (Faren-Let's Go Finland) for managing to put a gap of two minutes between herself and the peloton before she was brought back. Lucinda Brand (Rabobank) and Amanda Spratt (Orica-AIS) had a go between Kruisberg and Oude Kwaremont but were not permitted to get any further than a few seconds ahead.

Paterberg, 23km from the finish line, was expected to prove decisive with any group or individual that could get to the climb at the front of the peloton, remain ahead as the pack began to break up and then maintain their lead over Hoogberg would be in with a very good chance of staying in front to the end; as indeed was the case - Vos, Emma Johansson (Orica-AIS) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Hitec Products-UCK) escaped on Oude Kwaremont and worked together to build up a comfortable lead, which makes Ellen van Dijk's successful efforts to bridge and join them all the more impressive. Johansson tried to attack Vos at the top of the climb but found Longo Borghini and van Dijk unable to assist; then more attacks came as Oudenaarde approached, driving the pace so high that the Orica rider found herself temporarily dropped until she made an effort every bit as superhuman as van Dijk's and managed to rejoin, setting the scene for a classic sprint finish.

Vos, showing exactly why she's so frequently compared to Eddy Merckx (except by the ever-increasing number of fans who argue she's the better rider), launched her sprint early and silenced those who wondered if sixth place at last week's Trofeo Alfredo Binda might be a sign that the current World Champion was devoting too much time and attention to her newly-rekindled mountain biking career, holding off the other three all the way to the line before a final, forceful attack powered her to victory. She knew she'd finally added the Ronde to her palmares with 25m still to go, letting out a whoop of joy that was answered with a roar of support from the fans while van Dijk found the strength to battle past Johansson for second place.

"We tried everything we could to get away from Marianne. She just has that little kick that makes it impossible to escape from her,” van Dijk told reporters after the race. Vos now has 174 following three rounds of the World Cup, with van Dijk second in the standings on 135 points and Johansson third with 120.

Top Ten
Start list - lick to enlarge
1 Marianne VOS (Rabobank-Liv/Giant) 3h33'21"
2 Eleonora VAN DIJK (Specialized-Lululemon) ST
4 Elisa LONGO BORGHINI (Hitec Products-UCK) ST
5 Annemiek VAN VLEUTEN (Rabobank-Liv/Giant) +2'37"
6 Adrie VISSER (Boels-Dolmans) ST
7 Anna VAN DER BREGGEN (Sengers) ST
9 Elizabeth ARMITSTEAD (Boels-Dolmans) +2'39"
10 Kirsten WILD (Argos-Shimano) +4'33"
Full result here

As ever, the coverage given to the women's race was woeful when compared to that the men's event received - as bemoaned by fans and riders alike on Twitter and elsewhere. Fortunately, encouraged by the enormous popularity of the women's road race at the 2012 Olympics and the constant badgering by fans (keep it up, folks!), the UCI has finally come to realise that, provided it's made available and accessible to the public, there is a considerable audience for women's cycling and, as a result, it's started to provide highlights on its official YouTube channel. It's a long was from the sort of coverage the sport deserves and needs, and tends to be irritatingly brief, but it's a start - and there'll be a more in-depth half-hour highlights programme available soon.

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