World Cup Round Table: Ronde van Vlaanderen

Sat 5 Apr 2014

Round three of the World Cup is undoubtedly the biggest single day race of the year for the women’s professional peloton – save the World Championships. The women’s Ronde van Vlaanderen starts and finishes in Oudenaarde and covers the same pave (cobbles) and hellingen (hills) the men’s peloton will tackle later in the afternoon. You might not be sure how to properly pronounce them, but you’ve probably heard of the Paterberg and the Paddestraat and the Valkenberg and the Oude Kwaremont because these are the roads on which legends are made.

The race heads out of town toward Zingem where ORICA-AIS’ Emma Johansson makes her home during the early season. Traditionally, her adopted family, neighbours and family club decorate the streets of Zingem with Swedish flags and paint “EMMA” in big letters across the roads. The women’s peloton will roar through the crowd created tunnel of noise.

The first hill, the Wolvenberg, comes just beyond the 40 kilometre mark. The Molenberg follows. The cobbles begin next, beginning with the Paddestraat and the Lippenhovestraat. By now the serious splits will have begun.

The pave and hellingen now come in quick successions – the Haaghoek, the Leberg, the Hostellerie, the Valkenberg. Next it’s the Kaperij, the Kanarieberg, the Kruisberg and the Oude Kwaremont. The last significant climb is the Paterberg, 14 kilometres from the finish. The leg-breaking, soul-crushing climb has a maximum gradient of 20 percent – and, yeah, it’s cobbled.

ORICA-AIS won the Tour of Flanders in their maiden season when the now retired Judith Ardnt edged out Kristin Armstrong (USA National Team) in a two-up sprint.  The team backed up the result last year when Johansson rounded out the podium from a select group of four that included Ronde winner Marianne Vos (Rabo-Liv), Ellen van Dijk (then of Specialized-lululemon, now of Boels-Dolmans) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Hitec Products).

It was Johansson’s second time on the podium in Oudenaarde. She previously finished third four years earlier. Loes Gunnewijk’s palmares also include a podium at Tour of Flanders. In 2006, she snagged third place.

Over lunch the day prior to the race, our six starters participated in the Ronde van Vlaanderen World Cup Round Table. Our questions and their responses are below. 

Q: Imagine an Australian fan has just begun to follow professional cycling. She wishes she could watch your race live – and is looking forward to a late night of following Twitter updates in lieu of pictures. Tell her what she can expect to see.

Spratty – If she were watching, she would see a lot of chaos – much more than in the other races she’s seen this season. For Australian fans in particular, who don’t have a concept of racing on cobbles, I think they would be a bit shocked by the sort of damage cobbles can do. The peloton can split in a second. We have several longer sections of cobbles tomorrow, so it’s always splitting up. There are a lot of crashes, a lot of technical sections. She would see a constant rate of attrition throughout the race.

Jessie – I think, too, for the Australian viewers it’s hard to conceptualise the cobbles. I get angry if I hit one cat eye back in Australia, which is ridiculous because this is somewhat like riding on a road filled with cat eyes. That’s what racing like cobbles feels like. Add in a 20 percent gradient, you’ve got the Paterberg. It’s just nuts – Who builds let alone races on a road like that?

Loes – There are a lot of spectators.

Gracie – That’s what I was going to say, too. The race is so hard but the spectators are one element that we never get in that amount. Having a crowd roaring at you is really lifting. There’s a lot of desperation but there’s also a lot of excitement.

Jessie – The race has a distinct smell too. You smell frites, cigars and beer.

Loes – And sausage!

Gracie – This is like the Grand Final week back in Australia. It’s massive. They love their cycling. It’s the biggest party of the year.

Jessie – And the forecast is nice weather, so there will be more people on the streets rather than in the pubs watching.

Emma – You can’t see the atmosphere. You can’t feel it unless you’re here. Following it on Twitter, you can sort of get a feeling of what the race is like and how it’s being raced and how hard it is and how aggressive the whole peloton is, but you need to be there to be able to breathe it in and experience it. That’s what anyone who isn’t here is missing out on. It can’t be described. You just need to be there.

Q: How is your race different than the men’s race?

 Shara – It’s shorter.

Gracie – Because it’s shorter, like any of our races, it’s probably less predictable. It’s not as controlled.

Jessie – It’s more aggressive from the start.

Gracie – You can’t tell maybe until the second half what’s really going to happen.

Loes – If there’s a group on the road in the beginning, it will not get five minutes like with the men. Most of the time, it’s maybe one minute or one and a half.

Emma – The women’s race is more like the final from the men’s. We don’t have the boring start where the breakaway goes and it’s very controlled – and then the real race starts in the final. For us, it’s nearly four hours of aggressive racing straight from the start.

Q: Are any of you making any sort of modifications to your bike?

 Jessie – Nico puts on 28mm for the cobbles normally. He’ll possibly have a little less pressure than compared to the non-cobbled races. We use a different bike, too. We use the Scott Addict rather than the Scott Foil, which is not only lighter, but it also has a different geometry and seatpost which is more forgiving over the cobbles, so you can float over the rough sections rather than bounce around.

Loes – You can also do the double tape. Some of us double tape our handlebars.

Gracie – I’m going to be taping up my hands, so I don’t get blisters.

Emma – I’m racing a completely different bike than last week. I was on the Foil last week and I’m on the Addict tomorrow. I have different wheels on with a higher profile. I also have a bit thicker tubes. It’s a big change on the bike.

Q: What’s your best/worst memory from previous times racing Tour of Flanders?

 Emma – I hate this question. You know I don’t do this question. It can only get better until you win. There’s not best until you win. I know GreenEDGE won two years back with Judith. I wasn’t part of that. It would be nice to repeat with the team. 

I just love this race. It’s always a great feeling racing it. It’s a hard race. You have to suffer a lot and dig deep to bring home that nice victory. You need to try to dare to win – even if that means losing.

Gracie – My best memory was just to do it for the first time last year. My worst memory was missing the break that went near the end on the Kwaremont.

Jessie – I’ve raced twice, and I crashed both times, so there are both bad memories. My good memory was seeing Juds [Judith Ardnt] win it.

Spratty – Yeah, my best memory was when Judith won it. My worst memory was probably the first time I did it. It all started off pear shaped when we came the day before and tried to do our recon during the sportif ride, which ended up as a four hour epic. In the race, I crashed before we got to any cobbles. I was still determined to make it to the finish, so I did 130km by myself.

Jessie – Did you finish?

Spratty – Yep. I got time cut but I finished.

Loes – My worst memory is when we were sent the wrong way with two kilometres to go. We came to the finish line on the wrong side. We had been meant to sprint for third place. In the end, I had nothing. No result. No points. Nothing. The next year, I became third – on the podium. That’s the best memory.

Shara – The mur with all the crowds at the top of the cobbled climb by the church is probably my best memory. The crowds are really, really cool. I don’t really have a worst memory.

Q: Care to shed any light on tactics?

 Gracie – We have a lot of cards to play. Obviously we have Emma but she’s not the only strong rider we have. We all have a chance – to help her or to go for it ourselves.

Q: Fill in the blank. Personally, I will be satisfied when Tour of Flanders is done if _____________________.

 Loes: If it was a good race.

Shara: If we do really well. Winning is always a bonus.

Gracie: I think if we execute our team plan, a result after that is would be a bonus. We’re always happy if we do what we said we we’re going to do. Personally, for me, it’s not to get dropped up the Kwaremont like last year.

Jessie: Personally I would like to not crash out – and if I do a good job for the team and we get a good result, that’s always satisfying.

Spratty: I want to enjoy some frites at the end with an empty tank and nothing left in the legs and blisters on the hands, knowing that I’ve given everything and I couldn’t give anything more.

Gracie: It’s always satisfying when you burn off all the breakfast you eat in the morning. There’s nothing worse than crashing after 50km and realising how much food you ate before the race.

Emma: Me? If we win. 

ORICA-AIS for Ronde van Vlaanderen:

Amanda Spratt
Emma Johansson
Gracie Elvin
Jessie MacLean
Loes Gunnewijk 
Shara Gillow

Our friends at Pro Women's Cycling have put together this handy guide to help you follow our race tomorrow.