How the Race Finished
It seems as if Elisa Balsamo doesn’t know how to lose. The world champion made it a third World Tour win in eight days, winning Gent-Wevelgem in a reduced bunch sprint after a day of hyper-aggressive racing, ahead of Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) in second, and Maria Confalioniere (Ceratizit-WNT Pro Cycling) in third. In the flat run-in to the finish after the final climbs, it was a non-stop flurry of attacks and counter-attacks, but Balsamo’s Trek-Segafredo teammates, notably Ellen van Dijk, exerted control, and with Lorena Wiebes (Team DSM) crashing out earlier in the race, Balsamo took the sprint.
The Main Action
The race ran 159km from Leper to Wevelgem. The moment the race started, Anne van Rooijen (Parkhotel Valkenburg) and Willemijn Prins (Multum Accountants) attempted the day’s breakaway, but couldn’t stick it out. It was a second time lucky, however, for van Rooijen, who joined forces with Gulnaz Khatunseva (Roland Cogeas Edelweiss) with 148km to go. They developed a gap of two minutes. As they approached the potentially exposed and dangerous sections of De Moeren, the peloton reined them in a little, but as the open roads passed without incident, given the lack of wind, they were let out again.
The break was caught with 65km, as the peloton approached the potentially-decisive section of climbs in quick succession, starting with the Scherpenberg. On the narrow roads, as teams jostled for position on the start of the climbs, there were crashes.
On the Baneberg, SD Worx began to use their numbers to their advantage. Christine Majerus pushed hard throughout the climb, creating cracks through the unity of the group, and dropping riders out the back. As they crested the climb, Lotte Kopecky attacked over the top of her teammate. She was followed by Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM), Anna Henderson (Jumbo-Visma) and Liane Lippert (Team DSM), creating a leading group of four; Marta Lack (Ceratizit-WNT) bridged across to join them. They had less than ten seconds, but the gap stuck for a while. They climbed the Monteberg with the gap still intact; on the Belvedere ascent of the Kemmelberg, with the peloton behind gritting their teeth on the cobbles, it looked briefly as if they might be under threat from climbers like Marta Cavalli (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope), but they still clung on to a lead.
A group made up of Cavalli, Marlen Reusser (SD Worx) and Coryn Labecki (Team DSM) separated themselves from the peloton after the climb, and eventually caught the leaders, with 45km to go. At this point, as they passed through Kemmel, Lorena Wiebes (Team DSM) crashed, along with Lourdes Oyarbide (Movistar). Despite a valiant effort to chase back on, this would eventually force her to abandon. Things now looked open for Balsamo, if a sprint did manifest. Playing into Trek-Segafredo’s hands, there was a lack of cooperation among the leading group, and their gap rapidly dropped from twenty-five seconds, until they were caught with 43km to go.
SD Worx tried similar tactics for the second time over the Baneburg: Chantal van den Broek-Blaak drove forward hard, with Reusser attacking over the top; only fifty or so riders were left by the time the climb was done. On the top of the Baneburg, Alison Jackson (Liv Racing Xstra) was yet another victim of a crash.
It was the first time for the women’s peloton up the Ossuaire ascent of the Kemmelberg; Grace Brown (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope) used it as a chance to try a solo attack. The peloton was fractured by the ascent and descent, leaving a group of twenty five riders in front. Christine Majerus (SD Worx) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) attacked from this group, catching Brown and dragging the rest of the group along behind them. It was time for the familiar sight of an SD Worx rider attacking: Chantal van den Broek-Blaak flew off the front of the group, followed by Floortje Mackaij (Team DSM), Shirin van Anrooij (Trek-Segafredo) and Shari Bossuyt (Canyon-SRAM). They lasted two kilometres, before being brought back by the work of Jumbo-Visma – who had Marianne Vos tucked safely into the group behind. Then, it was Marlen Reusser’s turn to attack, but again, she was marked and brought back.
With 24km to go, the group behind the leaders caught up, with the peloton swelling now to fifty riders. Now, things got a little chaotic, with relentless attacks on the flat run-in to the finish. No sooner did an attack go than it was countered and brought back. Anna Henderson went; then Coryn Labecki, countered quickly by Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, with Shirin van Anrooij driving the front of the peloton to catch it for Trek-Segafredo. For SD Worx, Elena Cecchini and Christine Majerus tried in succession; then went Kasia Niewiadoma. With 10km to go, the peloton split under the pressure of the speed, creating a front group of about ten riders, including, notably, Ellen van Dijk. In a show of power, she dropped back to the second group, and on the front, reeled the front group back in.
With five kilometres to go, Anna Henderson was setting the pace for Jumbo-Visma. Behind her, Elisa Balsamo was hovering on Marianne Vos’ back wheel. SD Worx made a final attack with Lonneke Uneken, in the final four kilometres. The solo attack that came closest to success, however, was Grace Brown, on her second attempt of the day. She went at 3.4km, and suddenly had more of a gap than anyone had managed for the last twenty kilometres. Eventually, wanting the sprint finish, Jumbo-Visma co-operated with Trek-Segafredo to bring it back, with 1.4km to go.
After a day of almost frantic attacking from SD Worx, it was Christine Majerus and Marlen Reusser who did the final turns into the finishing strait, with Lotte Kopecky opening up the sprint. However, in the absence of Lorena Wiebes, no one could touch Elisa Balsamo, who rewarded her team after their day of reining in those attacks. Marianne Vos came close, but in the end it was Balsamo who came across the line with her arms aloft.
Lotte Kopecky came in fourth, after a somewhat hectic day from SD Worx. Emma Norsgaard was fifth, leading Movistar in the absence of Annemiek van Vleuten. Notably, Tamara Dronova-Balabolina in eighth is the best result yet for the new WWT team Roland Cogeas Edelweiss.
Balsamo extends her lead as the WWT leader, with Pfeiffer Georgi (Team DSM) moving into the position of best young rider.