Elisa Balsamo took a third consecutive win at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday proving herself as the most accomplished sprinter in the peloton.
Coming the back of her wins at Trofeo Binda and Brugge de Panne, the world road champion was the beneficiary of excellent teamwork. Her Trek-Segafredo team reareactedcting to a multitude of attacks and placing her perfectly for the final of the longest ever edition of the women’s race.
Marlen Reusser led SD Worx team-mate Lotte Kopecky out for the sprint, but Balsamo was perfectly positioned on the Belgian champion’s wheel, and when the Italian opened her sprint no one was able to get near her.
Coming into the wind late, last year’s winner Marianne Vos took second place for Jumbo-Visma, while Maria Giulia Confalonieri was the second Italian on the podium for Ceratizit-WNT.
After an attritional race where each of nine climbs caused splits, which then re-formed in a smaller bunch, the closing stages of the race were among the most aggressive you will see, no team wanting to take Balsamo to the line.
Along with Jumbo-Visma, SD Worx were particularly active, all five of Kopecky’s team-mates attacking in the final 20km, however Kopecky was only able to claim fourth place, after Trek-Segafredo closed every move.
How it happened
While the Italian race has been around since 1974, the women’s Gent-Wevelgem has only been on the calendar since 2012. Indeed, there was a squabble between the two races, the Belgians wanting promotion for what was a .2 race, the Italians unwilling to change date.
The bigger, more established race organiser, Flanders Classics won the day, and the Belgian Classic and joined Binda in the top tier of women’s racing in 2016, both races retaining their characters.
Flanders Classics have been doing much to promote their burgeoning stable of women’s races in recent years, increasing TV coverage and making event more similar to the men’s version, and this year’s Gent-Wevelgem is no exception.
Increased from its original distance of 115km, this year’s 159km race from Ypres was the longest ever. And, while the women have always climbed the shallower, Belvedere side of the Kemmelberg, for the first time they tackled the hellish Oussuaire side, as the final of nine hellingen climbs.
While the women's peloton has plenty of experience of racing across the notoriously windy ‘moeren,’ this year was the first time the riders tackled it in Gent-Wevelgem.
However, little wind meant nothing happened as they passed the section which is at and below sea level, and an early move was able to retain its lead on the bunch.
Gulnaz Khatuntseva (Roland-Cogeas-Edelweiss), had been up the road in Italy last week, and Anne van Rooijen from the ever aggressive Parkhotel Valkenburg squad, worked well led by almost three minutes with 30km done.
However, that was reduced rapidly as the day's climbs approached, and with the race heading towards two laps around the Scherpenberg, Baneberg, Monteberg and Kemmelberg they were caught.
The first time up the Baneberg Christine Majerus kicked off the aggression for SD Worx, splitting the peloton and allowing her team-mate Lotte Kopecky to take group of four up the road.
With Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM), Liane Lippert (DSM), and British time trial champion Anna Henderson (Jumbo-Visma) the group was a strong one. And though they only took a handful of seconds onto the Belvedere climb of the Kemmelberg, that climb shattered the chasing group and only three emerged in close pursuit.
With 45km to go the leading group was seven but, with both SD Worx and Jumbo-Visma now represented by two women in that break, cohesion died almost instantly and the Trek-Segafredo-led peloton caught them.
SD Worx launched a dig ahead of the second ascent of the Baneberg, then another on the climb itself, but though the peloton was briefly thinned, a large group led the race towards the final ascent of the Kemmelberg.
The climb failed to have the desired effect though, and while Grace Brown (FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope) took a small lead over the top, she was soon swallowed up, only for the 2016 winner, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak to lead a group of four away.
Hers was the first of a series of further punches from SD Worx, with Majerus, Marlen Reusser, and Elena Cecchini all trying their luck before other teams joined the party, all trying to drop Balsamo.
However, the stop-start nature of this racing allowed other groups to get back on and a group of around 40 women rode through Ypres with 21km remaining. The aggression continued on the final run to Wevelgem, but nothing would stick, and even when a group of 13 women finally broke the elastic, Balsamo's team-mate, Ellen van Dijk dropped back and the gap was closed.
After her earlier heroics over the Kemmelberg, Brown got a gap three kilometres from the line, but when she was caught 2,000m later a bunch kick was inevitable.
Gent - Wevelgem 2022: Ypres - Wevelgem (159km)
1. Elisa Balsamo (Ita) Trek-Seagfredo, in 3-39-15
2. Marianne Vos (Ned) Jumbo-Visma
3. Maria Giulia Confalonieri (Ita) Ceratizit-WNT
4. Lotte Kopecky (Bel) SDWorx
5. Emma Norsgaard (Den) Movistar
6. Marta Bastianelli (Ita) UAE Team ADQ
7. Susanne Andersen (Nor) UNO-X
8. Tamara Dronova (Neutral) Roland-Cogeas-Edelweiss
9. Silvia Persico (Ita) Valcar Travel and Service
10. Clara Copponi (Fra) FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope, all at same time
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