Dutch team Boels-Dolmans laid down a marker on Saturday, with former road world champion Chantal Blaak winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad by more than a minute.
The 29- year-old had escaped a group of eight riders which emerged from the Muur van Geraardsbergen, riding the closing 16km alone to take the team’s first win of 2019.
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With Blaak’s team mate Anna van der Breggen in a group of seven chasers representing as many different teams, cooperation behind was at a premium. Even an attempt by former time trial world champion Ellen van Dijk (Trek-Segafredo) was unable close the gap, and Blaak entered the final five kilometres leading by 48 seconds.
Eventually the chasing group were caught by the bunch, and European champion Marta Bastianelli (Virtu) placed second, with Jip van den Bos, another Boels-Dolmans rider in third.
Boels-Dolmans have been the dominant team of recent seasons and, while the season is young, Saturday’s success reaffirms that tag, despite the expected challenge from teams such as the newly formed super-team Trek-Segafredo.
The otherwise exceptional race was, however, marred by organisational difficulties.
With 32km covered it was temporarily stopped after the solo breakaway was too close to catching the men’s race, which started eight minutes before the women, and followed the same opening route. With four men up the road, their race had been taking it easy and were well behind schedule, while the women’s race had started much faster than organisers had expected.
Only after the first climb of the day, Leberg, did the routes diverge and the women were able to carry on properly.
How it happened
The peloton eased their way into the 2019 classics season, rolling out of Ghent to the official start of the 122.9km race in Merelbeke. When the flag finally dropped there was little action from the bunch and it was only with six kilometres ridden that anyone attacked.
Former Swiss road champion, Nicole Hanselmann (Bigla) set off on her own, though appeared to be expecting others to join her, and it was only after three lonely kilometres that she committed to the day.
Behind her the bunch gently renewed their relationship with the concrete slabbed roads so common in this area of Flanders, while Hanselmann built a lead which hovered around the 50 second mark after 10km.
A further six kilometres on, with the lead around 1.10, a counter attack was launched, with Diana Peñuela (Alé-Cipollini), Chiara Perini (Bepink) and 33 year-old British rider, Crystal Lane (Isorex No-Aqua) setting off in pursuit.
However, while Hanselmann’s lead on the bunch extended to 1.25, after 30km, the three chasers were unable to get within 35 seconds of her.
It was as the Swiss rider’s lead hit 1.30 within 12km of the Haaghoek, the first of five cobbled sectors, the race jury first slowed, then stopped her altogether as she began mingling with the rear of the men’s race convoy.
The women were stopped in the village of Sint-Denijs-Boekel for about five minutes before the race re-started with the time gap for the two leading groups the same as they had been before the stoppage.
However, the disruption caused a change to the race dynamic, and soon after it came back together, with Hanselmann caught as she negotiated Haaghoek.
The race then settled into a brief period of torpor before the pace increased once again as it neared the Wolvenberg. Here a crash took down around ten riders, including at least two from Boels-Dolmans, causing a split in the bunch.
Thirteen kilometres later it seemed the race was decided when Bastianelli (Virtu), world time trial champion Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) and the Canyon SRAM trio of Alexis Ryan, Kasia Niewiadoma and Brit, Hannah Barnes emerged from the Molenberg with a lead.
However, a lack of cohesion and the absence of both Trek-Segafredo and Boels-Dolmans ensured they were never given any significant room to escape. From then on the race waxed and waned excitingly, splitting and re-forming under pressure of repeated attacks, each of which whittled the group further.
Hostilities ceased only briefly on the approach to the Muur van Geraardsbergen after which the group of eight emerged with a lead exceeding ten seconds.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Women: Ghent to Ninove (122.9km)
1. Chantal Blaak (Ned) Boels-Dolmans in 3-20-58
2. Marta Bastianelli (Ita) Virtu at 1-09
3. Jip van den Bos (Ned) Boels-Dolmans
4. Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned) Mitchelton-Scott
5. Alexis Ryan (USA) Canyon-SRAM
6. Jeanne Korevaar (Ned) CCC-Liv
7. Aude Biannic (Fra) Movistar
8. Sofie de Vuyst (Bel) Parkhotel Valkenburg
9. Christina Sigaard (Den) Virtu
10. Floortje Mackaij (Ned) Sunweb, all at same time