Grace Brown defied the sprinters by winning the Brugge - De Panne with a solo move. The Australian attacked a group of 12 women who had emerged from the cross winds of northern Belgium to power home alone.
While the Australian quickly built an advantage of 25 seconds, that began to drop as the sprinters’ team mates began to coordinate their effort and Brown won by just a few seconds.
Danish champion Emma Norsgaard (Movistar) bagged another podium winning the sprint for second, while Jolien D’hoore (SDWorx) was third.
Brown picked her moment perfectly, attacking as the race returned from the long, straight open roads to the more twisty, sheltered roads of the sand dunes and seaside towns.
Brown's other high profile performances have come in similar fashion. Last year she won Brabantse Pijl alone, and just days later she pushed a solo Lizzie Deignan (Trek-Segafredo) close at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. This season, with Annemiek van Vleuten having left the team for Movistar we can expect Brown to be allowed more chances to shine.
SDWorx have been the season’s form team and created the final group, putting the race in the gutter in crosswinds. However, their dominance has not yet extended to the WorldTour, where after three races so far this season we have three different winning teams.
How it happened
The flattest race on the WorldTour calendar does exactly what it says on the tin: it starts in the historic city of Brugge and finishes in the seaside town of De Panne 158.8km later.
On Thursday the peloton first rode a 68.6km leg to De Panne before taking on two local circuits of 45.1km, each of which passed over the notoriously windswept Moeren, which predominantly lies at zero metres above sea level.
Only running since 2018 each edition has been won by a sprinter, with all three previous winners lining up at the start in Brugge.
It didn’t take long for three women to get away from the bunch, Kristie van Haaften (Parkhotel Valkenburg), Ann Helen Olsen (Coop Hitec Products) and 49 year-old Marijke De Smedt (Multum Accountants) leading by 45 seconds before the first 10km were done.
However, some in the bunch weren’t happy, launching in pursuit, taking the peloton with them and bringing them to heel. After an aggressive start from her Drops-Le Col team, British rider Lizzie Bennett was next to try her luck, soon building a gap of 50 seconds despite a headwind as she headed west towards the closing circuit.
However, even a lone rider was not allowed any leeway, and with 40km done she was caught and another solo escape went away. Marieke de Groot (Doltcini Van Eyck) was first allowed a 40 second lead before the pack in turn reeled her back in as they approached the town of Veurne for the first time.
With wind reported as 20kph from the west, a full bunch headed south onto the the Moeren for the first time, however, though some riders were dropped, a large group of more than 100 women emerged.
Over the ensuing kilometres the vast majority of those left behind were able to get back on, and a full peloton took the bell at the start of the final lap, with 45.1km left to race.
A crash in the middle of the peloton split the bunch and only half the bunch made it to the long exposed road across the Moeren. This time round SDWorx put the race in the gutter, and as the race began to split they were joined by Ceratizit-WNT, Trek-Segafredo and Movistar, and by the time they turned east into a tailwind section only 12 women were left at the front. Though Belgian champion Lotte Kopecky (Liv-Racing) had missed the move a remarkable ride saw her bridge the gap.
Another who found herself the wrong side of the split was last year’s winner, Lorena Wiebes. The former Dutch rider put her DSM to work, and they were joined by Alé-BTC Ljubljana, but though they got within 25 seconds they cold not make the junction leaving 13 women contesting the final.
The front group included six of the world’s best sprinters, and only Kopecky and British champion Alice Barnes (Canyon-SRAM) are without at least one team mate, and cooperation was excellent. Even when Lisa Brennauer punctured, her Ceratizit-WNT team mate and 2019 winner Kirsten Wild still had Danish rider Julie Leth to help maintain the pace.
Brown though was without any team mates, and knowing she lacks the punch to beat the faster women, was left no other option to laugh what was to be her race winning move.worldtour
Oxyclean Classic Brugge-De Panne, Brugge - De Panne (158.8km)
1. Grace Brown (Aus) BikeExchange in 4-03-17
2. Emma Norsgaard (Den) Movistar at 7 sec
3. Jolien D’hoore (Bel) SDWorx
4. Lotte Kopecky (Bel) Liv Racing
5. Elisa Balsamo (Ita) Valcar Travel and Service
6. Kirsten Wild (Ned) Ceratizit-WNT
7. Chloe Hosking (Aus) Trek-Segafredo
8. Alice Barnes (Gbr) Canyon-SRAM all at same time
9. Amy Pieters (Ned) SDWorx at 12 sec
10. Julie Leth (Den) Ceratizit-WNT at same time
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Owen Rogers is an experienced journalist, covering professional cycling and specialising in women's road racing. He has followed races such as the Women's Tour and Giro d'Italia Donne, live-tweeting from Women's WorldTour events as well as providing race reports, interviews, analysis and news stories. He has also worked for race teams, to provide post race reports and communications.
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