Words by Matilda Price | Photo by SWpix.com
The Dutch team may have taken a clean sweep of Opening Weekend with wins for Lotte Kopecky and Lorena Wiebes, but other squads are hot on their heels and ready to battle this spring
For many years now, SD Worx in their various incarnations have been considered the best team in the women’s peloton. It’s not just a feeling, either, it’s mathematically true, with the Dutch squad topping the UCI team rankings for the last five years. With the rise of Annemiek van Vleuten and the retirement of Anna van der Breggen, their grip on stage races has perhaps loosened, but where they’ve always continued to dominate is in their Dutch and Belgian homelands: the spring Classics.
This year, they kicked off the spring in a decidedly dominant fashion, taking a 1-2 at Omloop het Nieuwsblad as Lotte Kopecky rode away to victory and new signing Lorena Wiebes beat the pack for second, which the Dutch sprinter followed up with a win the following day at Omloop van het Hageland. Jumbo-Visma’s two wins over the weekend may have been making the headlines, but let’s not overlook the fact that SD Worx did exactly the same.
Though known primarily as the best sprinter in the peloton, Wiebes’s addition to the team seems to already be bolstering their efforts in the tougher races. Not only has the 23 year old clearly been working on her climbing in the off-season, allowing her to stick with the main group over climbs like the Muur van Geraardsbergen, but her presence is also a tactical boon for the squad. As long as she is in a chasing group, other teams will be hesitant to bring back an attack, knowing Wiebes would likely win the final sprint.
Combine the already-victorious Kopecky and Wiebes with Ardennes specialist Demi Vollering (pictured) and super domestiques Christine Majerus, Marlen Reusser and Elena Cecchini, and the team have options for practically every race and race scenario.
It’s clear, then, that the SD Worx Classics squad is as strong – if not stronger – as ever. In this form, they’re going to continue to dominate the Belgian, Italian and Dutch races this spring, right? Well, perhaps not. They may have kicked off the season with a clean sweep of wins, but with the WorldTour getting stronger and stronger each year, their claim of being the best Classics team gets weaker and weaker. So who is going to get in the way of their winning streak this spring?
The pretenders to the crown: Trek-Segafredo
The team that has been hot on SD Worx’s Classics-dominating heels for some time now is Trek-Segafredo. They’re a team built in a similar form to SD Worx: full of winners and experienced riders, always fielding a line-up of several options, not just building around one leader. They’ll miss Lizzie Deignan for another spring, but they have Elisa Balsamo and Elisa Longo Borghini, Amanda Spratt for when the road goes up, Lucinda Brand and Shirin van Anrooij for when the racing goes off-road, and some of the best domestiques in the peloton to support them. Trek-Segafredo also have team cooperation refined to an art, as we’ve already seen in Australia and the UAE this year.
Importantly, Trek have done something SD Worx have not yet managed: won Paris-Roubaix. The Queen of the Classics will surely be top of SD Worx’s list of goals this year, but they’re up against the only team to have won it. By taking the first two editions of the Hell of the North, Trek certainly know something the other teams don’t, and will undoubtedly use this to their advantage to try and win for a third year in a row. Trek’s stronghold on Roubaix has been the biggest question mark over SD Worx’s Classics dominance, so if the Dutch team can claim the top spot in the velodrome next month, they can finally fill that big gap in their trophy cabinet.
A team reinvented: Movistar
One of the biggest revelations of the early season so far has been Movistar’s newly rounded-out team. Movistar’s success in the last few years is of course nothing to sniff at – Annemiek van Vleuten’s list of wins alone is better than most teams have managed – but it has been somewhat focused on Van Vleuten with relatively few other options. This season, however, we’ve seen a completely rejuvenated side to the Spanish squad. The biggest change has been the signing of Liane Lippert and Floortje Mackaij from Team DSM, two experienced riders who fit into the perfect sweet spot of riders who can do a bit of everything – exactly what you need in the Classics.
Movistar’s transformation was plain to see in the closing stages of Omloop het Nieuwsblad, when at one point they had all six of their riders in the front group. Aude Biannic was able to pull on the front, Lippert and Mackaij ready to cover moves, Emma Norsgaard there as their sprinting option, and van Vleuten simply being van Vleuten. We’re used to seeing van Vleuten on her own in the pointy end of races, so this was a completely different scenario for once: suddenly, they looked like the strongest team in the race, with options for any outcome.
Sadly, a puncture before the Muur put an end to van Vleuten’s chances, and Sierra attacked valiantly on the climb but couldn’t follow Kopecky, but if the team can fill and control a small group in the way that they did on Saturday, the wins are sure to start coming. If SD Worx thought they were the only team coming to races with four or five different options, Movistar have just put an end to that idea.
The emerging threats
Unfortunately for SD Worx – and fortunately for us as viewers, pundits and enjoyers of exciting racing – the list of teams ready to stand in their way doesn’t stop there. UAE Team ADQ are the squad that have come closest so far, with Marta Bastianelli finishing third and second behind Wiebes over the weekend, before taking the win herself at Le Samyn. And it wasn’t just Bastianelli’s proven sprinting that got her there either, the pastel jerseys of UAE have been a common sight at the front of the peloton, both willing and able to put the work in to try and bring moves back and follow attacks. The team are perhaps better suited to the flatter Classics with their heft of Italian sprinters, but they also have Silvia Persico up their sleeve, a rider who is yet to find a terrain she doesn’t like.
Equally, the usual suspects like FDJ-SUEZ and Jumbo-Visma are getting stronger by the year, and the Pro teams such as AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step and Fenix Deceuninck aren’t looking like they’re going to spend the year sitting in the wheels. A few years ago, SD Worx may have been the only team with the depth and organisation to even think about being a dominant force, but this season, they’re going to have to work hard if they want to replicate the success they had in Belgium this weekend.
Strade Bianche may give us the answers
The best bit about the Spring Classics is that we don’t have to wait long for our answers from one race to be answered at the next. The dust has only just settled on the goings on at Opening Weekend and Le Samyn, but we’re already focusing on Strade Bianche and what the white roads of Tuscany might tell us. After Belgium, this will be a big test for SD Worx. They may have defending winner Lotte Kopecky in their ranks, but how will she fare after her exertions on Saturday? Is their climber-heavy team enough to get through the tough gravel sections, too?
Trek-Segafredo have been dealt a blow with Longo Borghini out through sickness, but they have Amanda Spratt and a strong support team. Movistar are perhaps looking the best, keeping a similar team to Omloop but drafting in extra climbing support for van Vleuten. What’s more, for Movistar, is how much they will want to win this. It’s a rare sight to see van Vleuten waiting for a win, but she’s yet to take one this year, and will surely be extra motivated to win in Siena in what is her final season as a professional.
SD Worx dominance may have been the first prevailing narrative of the Classics block, but going forward, the question becomes how long can they keep it up, and who has done what to be able to better the Dutch squad in their specialist subject. As the sport grows and changes for the better, SD Worx may finally give up that ‘Best Team’ crown they’ve held for so long – and that may well be a good thing.