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The rise of the women’s superteam

In-depth
27 Feb 2019
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This article was originally published in issue 83 of Cyclist magazine

Words Richard Moore Illustration 17th and Oak

Towards the end of August 2017 Lizzie Deignan won one of the toughest road races on the women’s calendar, the GP de Plouay in Brittany.

Ten seconds later, crossing the line in 19th place, was Anna van der Breggen.

The other great Dutchwoman, Annemiek van Vleuten, wasn’t riding, preparing instead for the World Championships in Bergen, where a month later she would win the time-trial.

A little over a year has elapsed since then but, in the world of women’s cycling, it seems a lot longer.

It certainly does for Deignan, who sat out the 2018 season and in September gave birth to her daughter, Orla.

In those 12 months, it feels as though much has changed in her sport.

After many years of trying, Van der Breggen is finally and deservedly World Road Race Champion and Van Vleuten is the Women’s WorldTour winner, having also defended her World Time-Trial title.

But it hasn’t been the wins so much as the manner of their taking that appears to have put the two Dutch riders on a pedestal beyond the reach of their rivals.

Van Vleuten, now 36, scaled new heights in 2018, crushing the opposition at the Giro Rosa, pipping Van der Breggen in a thrilling finale to La Course – a race which served to underline this pair’s dominance – and also winning the Boels Ladies Tour.

Van der Breggen picked her targets carefully but still managed to cross the line first at Strade Bianche, the Tour of Flanders, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Then, most memorably, the World Road Race in Innsbruck, where a 39km solo attack saw her finish almost four minutes ahead of second-placed Amanda Spratt.

Van Vleuten crashed but rode 90km with a broken knee and still managed to finish seventh.

It wasn’t a one-off. At the Tour of Flanders, she crashed and dislocated her shoulder, got back up and eventually sprinted to third place.

Van Vleuten’s improvement over the past couple of seasons almost amounts to a transformation.

Always a strong rider, she spent a substantial chunk of her career riding in the service of Marianne Vos at Rabobank at a time when Vos was dominant.

Given this, it was impressive that Van Vleuten was able to win the Tour of Flanders and GP de Plouay in 2011, with Vos third in both.

But it was only in 2016, when she moved to her current team, that she started to develop into a different kind of rider.

Many will remember her from the Olympic road race in Rio, where she crashed spectacularly – sickeningly – on a dangerous descent.

What tends to be forgotten is that at the time of her crash Van Vleuten was off the front, alone, with a teammate, Van der Breggen, there to mark any counterattacks behind.

With her time-trialling ability, there was every chance that Van Vleuten would have held on to win the Olympic gold medal.

After her crash, however, it was Van der Breggen who ensured that the title at least still went to the Netherlands.

Over the following days Van Vleuten gave a series of interviews from her hospital bed.

There was relief that her injuries from the crash weren’t worse and that she seemed to be OK.

But Van Vleuten didn’t appear to share that sense of relief.

She was angry and burned with frustration at the opportunity that had slipped from her grasp.

The following year she was stronger than ever.

And in 2018 she was stronger again, most obviously at the Giro Rosa, where, in a 15km mountain time-trial to Diga di Campo Moro, she put almost two and a half minutes into Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, who was second.

The rest of the field – the strongest climbers in the world with the exception of the absent Van der Breggen and Deignan – were scattered in her wake, some of them losing several minutes.

Power of two

The question now for the others is how to catch the flying Dutchwomen.

It’s a challenge that Deignan says she will relish when she returns to racing in June, although for her there are more unknowns.

While she says she ‘kept one eye’ on the major women’s races in 2018, she has felt cut off from a world in which she was immersed for a decade.

That last win in Plouay ‘does feel like a lifetime ago’, she admits. ‘I feel like a different person, so much has changed.’

Does it seem to her that her sport has changed, too?

‘I don’t know. At most races it has seemed like it’s between those two [Van Vleuten and Van der Breggen].

‘At least it’s been good to see that it’s not just one team, Boels-Dolmans, dominating. There seems to be more of a spread.’

Deignan was of course part of that Boels-Dolmans machine until 2018.

She was a big factor in their domination and it’s possible that the more even spread owed something to the 2015 World Champion’s absence.

Last year Canyon-Sram were impressive in the first and last parts of the season, Vos and her WaowDeals team had some success, and Team Sunweb were consistent and arguably the best organised team in the women’s peloton.

But if there were wins for other riders in WorldTour races it was generally because Van Vleuten and Van der Breggen were missing.

Neither was an ever-present. Van der Breggen hardly raced in June and July, while Van Vleuten spent time training at altitude for the races she’d targeted.

Van der Breggen and Van Vleuten are unusual.

Both were allowed time off from racing to prepare for their goals.

While Van Vleuten built her year around two major peaks, at the Giro and Worlds, Van der Breggen skipped the Giro and Women’s Tour as she made the World Championships road race the main focus of her season.

In a sense, women’s cycling is following the same trend as men’s racing, but one difference is that very few have the luxury of being able to sit out periods of racing and go to altitude camps, as the top male riders now routinely do.

Most of the female professionals who ride WorldTour races did around 50 days of racing in 2018. Van der Breggen ‘only’ raced 32 days.

‘It’s definitely becoming more and more professional, just like men’s racing,’ says Deignan.

‘But taking time out is also really important, and I think that’s partly how those two [Van Vleuten and Van der Breggen] have been able to be at such a high level.

‘But if you’re an all-rounder who’s successful it’s very difficult to take time out.

‘For years Vos was dominant in every race and she never took time out, but it did catch up with her eventually.’

Trek to glory?

Deignan will return in 2019 in the navy blue and white of a new team, Trek-Segafredo.

They have put together a strong and international line-up, with 10 different nationalities in their 13-rider squad, which includes Elisa Longo Borghini, Audrey Cordon-Ragot and Lotta Lepistö, plus the experienced Trixi Worrack and Ellen van Dijk.

Also on the roster are young prospects Abi Van Twisk and Letizia Paternoster.

On paper, this looks the equal of any other team, including Boels-Dolmans.

The only question is whether they have enough winners.

Longo Borghini is consistently one of the strongest riders in the world, but lacks a finish.

Lepistö is a sprinter who on her day can win big races.

Then there is Deignan, of course, who is a proven winner.

But she doesn’t see her new team emulating her previous team.

‘It’s a lot to ask a brand new team to dominate,’ she says.

‘It takes time. You need to build up the trust and learn how to spread leadership. There’s certainly no pressure.

‘But we want to be competitive. We had better be competitive!

‘I know all my new teammates pretty well,’ she adds.

‘I’ve ridden with Ellen, but not many of the others, and not with Longo Borghini.

‘But I think Elisa and I can complement each other well. We should be a good combination because she’s often at the pointy end of races but doesn’t have the best kick.

‘I hope that she’ll have more opportunities to win.’

One of the more radical moves by the new team, in a sport in which the management positions are still mainly held by men, is to appoint two female directeurs sportif.

There aren’t many more respected figures in women’s racing than Ina Teutenberg, who won more than 200 races during her career, and Giorgia Bronzini, a World Champion on both road and track.

‘The two DSs are the secret weapon,’ says Deignan.

‘I was so happy that Ina came on board. You can have all the infrastructure you like but if you haven’t got a strong leader it won’t work.

‘I never raced in the same team as Ina but she was someone I looked up to.

‘I found her inspiring and, even though I wasn’t her teammate, I learned so much racing alongside her.

‘I think she will teach me a lot – I feel I still have a lot to learn.

‘And I was happy when they announced Giorgia as well. I think they’ll both be great for our team.’

If the team appears to lack guaranteed winners on the road, it will at least have them in the team cars – Teutenberg and Bronzini are two of the most prolific riders in the history of women’s cycling.

For Deignan the big goal next year is the World Championships in her native Yorkshire.

She has returned to training, but is determined to take tentative steps along the road back to full fitness.

‘I’m trying to hold myself back. I’m really pleasantly surprised by my fitness and form.

‘Sometimes I think, “Oh my goodness, I feel really good,” but other times it feels like normal off-season fitness.

‘I’m lucky Philip [Deignan, her husband and former Team Sky rider] has retired now. He’s really hands-on with Orla.

‘The main limiting factor when it comes to training is breast-feeding every three hours. But that’s also kind of a good thing, because it’s limiting how much I do on the bike.

‘It’s really important that I build a good base of steady miles.

‘Having said that, I’m really enjoying riding my bike and I know that sometimes I’m riding too fast.’

Although returning in June is the plan, Deignan says it’s possible she could be in competitive action sooner, perhaps even as early as the Tour de Yorkshire in early May – ‘If I’m able.’

How will she feel when she’s back on a start line?

‘I will feel nervous, which is also really exciting. I got to the point in racing where I wasn’t nervous any more, which is not a good thing.

‘I’m excited about being nervous again.’

As for the World Championships in Harrogate, she will certainly be excited on 28th September, the morning of the women’s road race.

‘I know the circuit really well, like the back of my hand. I love it.’

It would be quite something if Deignan was able to return and scale her previous heights (as well as her world title, she’s a previous winner of the Tour of Flanders, Strade Bianche and a four-time national Road Race champion) and if, come the World Championships in Yorkshire, she lines up as a favourite alongside Van der Breggen and Van Vleuten.

Strength in numbers

After the dominance of Boels-Dolmans last season, 2019 could see more teams fighting for honours

With a lot of focus and attention on the new Trek-Segafredo women’s team there has been relatively little talk about another major new outfit.

The CCC women’s team has evolved out of WaowDeals, headed by Marianne Vos but overshadowed in recent seasons by another Dutch team, Boels-Dolmans.

In 2018 Vos and co seemed to close the gap a little.

For 2019 they have lost the recently retired Dani Rowe but, alongside Vos, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio will join CCC from Cervélo-Bigla, which could narrow the gap further.

Although the Wiggle-High5 team is disappearing, there should be six squads – Trek, CCC, Boels-Dolmans, Sunweb, Mitchelton-Scott and Canyon-Sram – scrapping for the major honours.

With Moolman Pasio’s strength as a climber – she was second at Flèche Wallonne and the Giro Rosa in 2018 – coupled with Vos’s return to form, it should make the new CCC team competitive over most terrain and in most races.

The once-dominant Vos hit a rich vein of form in August when she won two Women’s WorldTour events, Vårgårda in Sweden and then the Ladies Tour of Norway, where she won three stages.

‘I think there could be something of a levelling of the playing field in 2019,’ says Moolman Pasio.

‘Boels-Dolmans have been the dominant team the last few seasons, but next year that could change.

‘Instead of all the really strong riders being in one set-up, it’s more distributed throughout the peloton, or at least four or five teams.’

Illustration: 17th & Oak