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World beaters: Boels-Dolmans at the Giro Rosa

21 Feb 2019

This article was originally published in issue 82 of Cyclist magazine

Words Hannah Troop Photography Lisa Stonehouse

Like their nation’s infamous crosswinds, Dutch team Boels-Dolmans can blow a peloton apart.

They have repeatedly done just that over the last few years – in fact, the past four World Champions have won the rainbow stripes while among their number.

Britain’s Lizzie Deignan was first in 2015 (she has since signed with the new Trek-Segafredo team for 2019). Then came Danish rider Amalie Dideriksen in 2016, followed by the Netherlands’ Chantal Blaak in 2017.

In 2018 it was the turn of Boels-Dolmans’ Dutch superstar Anna van der Breggen to take the rainbow jersey in a powerful display that saw her put 3 minutes 42 seconds into her nearest rival.

Winning is what this team is all about. So much so that it can seem their domination has taken the fun out of racing. But does it take it out of them too?

End of a long day

It’s late in the evening after Stage 7 of the 2018 Giro Rosa, a week-long race in Italy that is the women’s equivalent of the Giro d’Italia.

A large, nondescript hotel in a business estate is home for the night, and several teams are milling around. Soigneurs and mechanics clean vehicles and bikes in the car park, turning the area into a mess of hosepipes and foaming puddles.

Riders wearily decamp from campervans and cars, exhausted after a four-hour post-race transfer.

Too tired to talk, they have one goal – to become horizontal as soon as possible.

It’s July, which means Van der Breggen has yet to win her World Champion’s jersey – for now, the rainbow stripes are being worn by teammate Blaak.

Van der Breggen is the defending Giro Rosa champion, but such is depth of talent in the team that they don’t feel the pressure to bring her along this year.

Instead, the team’s hopes lie with Megan Guarnier, an American rider who won the Giro for them back in 2016.

Long transfers this deep into a stage race are a stress felt by everyone in the team.

Skylar Schneider and Anna Plichta try to relax in the hotel restaurant, and they’re the lucky ones – being low on GC meant they started today’s time-trial early, and so were among the first to get back to the hotel. Blaak and teammate Amy Pieters don’t arrive until 11pm.

The Giro is living up to its reputation as one of the hardest races on the Women’s WorldTour.

‘That’s just the way the Giro is,’ says Guarnier. ‘It’s a very large peloton and it’s not all WorldTour teams. It’s Italian racing. It’s always hectic.’

As the GC rider for the team, Guarnier is fighting to make up time she lost as the result of a crash on Stage 3.

As well as a previous win at the Giro Rosa, she has wins at the Tour of California, Giro Toscana and Strade Bianche to her name.

She’s hoping to add another victory to her palmarès before retiring at the end of the season, but it seems this race will not go her way.

‘I think Annemiek put three minutes into me, which is incredible,’ she says of Mitchelton-Scott rider Annemiek van Vleuten’s dominant performance in today’s time-trial.

‘But I think I did my best effort and I didn’t have a bad day so that’s all I can be looking at.’

New day, new stage

The following day begins with a steady stream of riders making their way down to breakfast. This far into a race, conversation comes in abbreviated form.

‘What stage is it?’ asks Plichta.

‘It’s eight,’ responds Blaak.

‘Can you pass me the PB?’ asks Karol-Ann Canuel.

‘The what?’ says Plichta.

Someone passes the peanut butter. ‘That’s the level we’re on,’ says Blaak, laughing.

The atmosphere at the table is a mixture of exhaustion and anxiety, but it doesn’t dampen the spirits.

Laughter is this team’s way of dealing with all of their anxieties. They’re in it together and know that each of them is doing all they can to achieve the same goal.

Outside, the sun is shining. Smiley, as one of the soigneurs is affectionately known, is getting ready to do the supermarket run, but first guides us onto the gleaming team bus.

It dwarfs most other teams’ campervans, which are still the most common mode of transport in the women’s peloton.

It’s obvious that the bus is a source of pride – a symbol of how far the team has come.

Inside there are reclining chairs for every rider, and their helmets and kit are stored in their own compartments.

There’s a kitchen and a glass cubicle with three showers. At the back of the bus is a horseshoe-shaped sofa that represents the ‘chill out’ zone.

A bus like this may be standard in the men’s sport, but it’s a rarity in the women’s.

And it’s more than simply a status symbol. Being able to finish a race and get showered on the bus means you’re able to go straight to dinner on arrival at the hotel. Those marginal gains all add up.

As the midday race start draws closer, so the mercury rises.

Soigneurs Alec, Michele and Smiley place ice packs around the riders’ necks, trying to keep them as cool as possible before four hours of racing in 30°C temperatures.

Two minutes before the stage starts, I’m ushered into the team car.

A message on my phone reads: ‘Coffee?’ Before I have a chance to answer, directeur sportif Danny Stam is already passing one through the passenger window, and 20 seconds later it’s starting to pool on the armrest between the two front seats.

Clumsy elbows are not appreciated by Stam in his team car, and he passes a napkin over with a roll of the eyes and a grin.

He turns to Tim, the mechanic who’s positioned back seat for the day, and says, ‘Tim, you know how I like to keep the car clean, yeah? She’s been spilling coffee and not even been in the car five minutes.’

‘And she’s still here?’ Tim responds with a grin.

During the neutralised zone, team cars jockey to get into position according to their accredited numbers.

Pulling alongside Wiggle-High5’s car, Stam calls over to their DS: ‘It’s a tough climb at the finish today, eh?’

‘Yeah, should be good,’ their DS replies.

‘Good for what?’ Stam asks, smiling.

‘Some action!’ their DS responds.

Despite the fierce competition, the mood among the teams seems relaxed.

The voice of Luxembourg rider Christine Majerus comes over the radio, a slight air of frustration to whatever it is she’s trying to say.

‘Christine, Christine,’ soothes Stam. ‘It’s Italy, there’s no time for stress, eh?’ Which he quickly follows up with, ‘The official start has been given. Please girls, stay safe.’

There’s nothing superficial about the level of care he has for his team.

Mountains to climb

Stam, a former six-day track racer, is in his sixth season at Boels-Dolmans.

‘I came directly into women’s cycling,’ he tells me as the race settles into its rhythm.

‘I started with AA Drink-leontien and then that sponsor pulled out and Dolmans asked me if I wanted to start a team. They wanted to create the best team in the world and I thought that sounded like a nice challenge.

‘You’ve been with the team a little while now,’ he says to me, ‘and you see that it’s like a small family, and I think that’s what makes us so strong.

‘We try to be as professional as possible, and of course we have great riders in the team. They work together and they respect each other and trust each other.

‘Sometimes it can be hard, but they also find out that if you help each other then everybody gets their own part, and they all get their chance to win a big race.

‘We make sure we celebrate the rider that is working just as much as the rider who is winning. Then you can keep all the egos in the box. It looks very simple from the outside.’

As of next year, Boels-Dolmans will have some serious competition in the form of the new Trek-Segafredo team that, along with Deignan has also signed the likes of Wiggle-High5’s Elisa Longo Borghini, Cervélo-Bigla’s Lotta Lepistö and Sunweb’s Ellen van Dijk.

‘Of course it’s going to have a big effect,’ says Stam. ‘They, like Sunweb and Movistar, can rely on all the knowledge from the men’s teams.

‘That’s hard for us, but we’re also pretty proud that we’re not relying on a men’s team.’

On the final descent Longo Borghini, Marianne Vos (WaowDeals) and Lucinda Brand (Sunweb) attack. Their move is textbook, and their descending agility rips the race apart.

Lepistö and Clara Koppenburg of Cervélo-Bigla come flying past us into a tight hairpin.

Lepistö’s face is etched with determination. They’re in full chase mode, hunting down the chance for a sprint, and Stam cringes as they barrel into the 180° corner without braking.

‘They’re going too fast,’ he gasps.

Watching these riders fly down mountains so fearlessly, I get a feeling both of exhilaration and disappointment – the former for obvious reasons, the latter because this gutsy display isn’t being shown on live TV.

Few people will get to see what I’m seeing.

Things are changing, if slowly. Much has been made of the inclusion of Monte Zoncolan in this year’s edition of the Giro Rosa as an indication that women’s racing is starting to match up to the men’s sport.

But in fact the Zoncolan first appeared in the women’s race back in 1997, and didn’t make its debut in the men’s race until 2004.

Stam is unimpressed by the hype surrounding the Zoncolan.

‘I don’t think a huge climb marks progression in women’s cycling. What we need is the coverage from television and that kind of thing.

‘You could have a less hard climb but a lot more media coverage around it. That would be a good improvement for women’s cycling.’

Close of play

In the last 20km, Stam’s radio contact with the team becomes more frequent.

‘Hey guys, you’re in a really shit position. Can you move forward?’ is his way of cajoling the team to get a move on towards the front of the pack.

It’s not the outcome they want, especially as Guarnier takes another fall on the final descent. But later on, bandaged up, she still seems in good spirits ahead of the Zoncolan stage the next day.

Her position on GC means she has nothing to lose.

Later that night, around 10pm, Stam is in the hotel’s back yard, cleaning one of the bikes.

The soigneurs are all there as well, joking between themselves over a well-earned beer.

I mention to Stam what Amy Pieters had said to me earlier about the impression given off by the team: ‘When you are inside you realise that everyone is really nice to each other, so we don’t need to be nice to everyone else.’

Stam laughs and admits that despite the reputation Boels-Dolmans has as a team with a killer instinct, it’s not always as serious as it seems.

‘But don’t go around telling people that,’ he adds.