In just her third outing this year, Marlen Reusser (SD Worx) soloed through the wind and rain to claim a maiden Classics victory at Gent-Wevelgem.
The Swiss rider drifted off the front with 40km to go and drew on her time-trialling prowess to stay clear of the peloton.
By the time she crested the final climb, Reusser’s advantage stood at over a minute, which she then doubled on the flat roads into Wevelgem. A wrong turn in the final 5km brought a moment of panic, but ultimately didn't dent the SD Worx rider's resounding victory.
"I'm so tired, I think I'm not yet here with my head," she said after the race.
Asked about her race-winning move, Reusser said: "I didn't attack. I thought maybe we could make a little bit of a selection, or a small group, and there was just nobody on my wheel. I thought, 'Let's try a bit!'
"With 1km to go, I was slowly getting more sure, but even at 400m, 300m, I was thinking maybe somebody will come, but I was thinking it was going to work out."
The attritional conditions in West Flanders made for a crash-marred race, in which Reusser herself took a tumble early on.
Megan Jastrab (Team DSM) sprinted to second from the peloton - a first Classics podium for the 21-year-old American - while Canyon-Sram's Maike van der Duin was awarded third place in a photo finish.
How it happened
Heading north out of Ypres, the peloton travelled towards the coastline on a tour of the First World War battlefields. The opening 100km of racing were set up to be relatively featureless, before the route dealt a string of seven challenging bergs.
For the first half of the race, the pack kept any hopeful attackers on a tight leash. Pien Limpens (Parkhotel Valkenburg) and Malin Eriksen (Duolar-Chevalmeire) were both allowed a small gap, but were swiftly swallowed up by the bunch.
No attacks came over the opening two climbs, before a crash on the cobbles forced Brugge-De Panne winner Pfeiffer Georgi (Team DSM) into a bike change. The former British road champion then fell victim to a pile-up with 44km to go, when a rider hit the ridge in the middle of the road and slid out through the peloton.
On the first of two ascents of the Kemmelberg, Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx) and Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-Sram) whittled down the peloton, before both were caught by the bunch.
With 40km remaining, Reusser then slipped off the front on the Baneberg, the penultimate climb, and drew out a one-minute gap into the foot of the Kemmelberg. Just a handful of kilometres later, the SD Worx rider had managed to stretch her advantage to over two minutes, tucking her elbows in to remain as aerodynamic as possible.
A chasing group finally set sail with 15km remaining, but their efforts came too late. Reusser’s team-mate Christine Majerus (SD Worx) cleverly interfered, rolling and easing up to slow their advances. Into the final 5km, Reusser held so much of a gap, that even a brief wrong turn proved inconsequential.
The victory marked the Swiss rider's first since claiming stage four of last year's Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, and proved another tactical masterclass from SD Worx. The Dutch team have enjoyed a commanding start to the 2023 season, also winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche and the Ronde van Drenthe, all with different riders.
"If you know Marlen, you know she's capable of doing this," Kopecky told reporters after the race. Perhaps the peloton didn't know Reusser as well as they should have.
Gent-Wevelgem 2023 (162.5km)
1. Marlen Reusser (Sui) SD Worx, in 4-16-47
2. Megan Jastrab (USA) Team DSM
3. Maike van der Duin (Ned) Canyon-Sram
4. Karlijn Swinkels (Ned) Jumbo-Visma
5. Christina Schweinberger (Aut) Fenix-Deceuninck
6. Marta Bastianelli (Ita) UAE Team ADQ
7. Elinor Barker (GBr) Uno-X
8. Clara Copponi (Fra) FDJ Suez
9. Anna Henderson (GBr) Jumbo-Visma
10. Shari Bossuyt (Bel) Canyon-Sram, all at 2-42
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