Words by Matilda Price | Photo by SWpix.com
Labelled a “sprinter”, Lorena Wiebes is showing that she’s much more than that and her growing strength is forcing rival teams to adapt
When a rider is good enough, their very presence on a startlist can completely change the way a race is raced. We see it with Tadej Pogacar, Mathieu van der Poel, Annemiek van Vleuten. And this spring, it seems Lorena Wiebes is starting to have the same effect.
To rewind a little, you could probably say Wiebes has been having a not-insignificant effect on the way races are raced for a while now, owing to her all but unbeatable ability in a sprint finish on a flat day. This year, though, her impact has spread to the Spring Classics. The 24-year-old has raced a fuller Classics programme than usual this season, and though she has ‘only’ won two – Omloop van het Hageland and Ronde van Drenthe – it’s hard to pick out a race where she didn’t influence the race in some way.
This narrative started back in February at Omloop het Nieuwsblad. After racing the UAE Tour – where she only picked up one sprint win, an uncharacteristically humble tally for the Dutchwoman – Lorena Wiebes lined up in Belgium to start her first Classic for her new team. Part of her move to SD Worx seemed to come from a desire to diversify, and her hopes for the Classics were spoken about a lot over the off-season. What she traded off in the form of DSM’s drilled lead-out train, she gained in joining arguably the best one-day team in the peloton.
She had the drive, she had the team, she had earnt her selection, but one big question remained: how would she actually go on a tougher race like Omloop? It turns out, quite well. She didn’t win that race – she swept up second from the sprint behind whilst her teammate Lotte Kopecky won solo – but she tackled the tough roads the Muur van Geraardsbergen with ease. It wasn’t the fast, flat type of race Wiebes is best at, and that didn’t seem to matter at all. From the conclusion of that race, it was clear Wiebes was going to be a problem this spring.
Even back then, you could have predicted how this would play out: if Wiebes was in the front group, attacking would be much harder as SD Worx would be chasing you down, knowing they had an almost assured win with Wiebes. And if a rider or group did get away – particularly if it included an SD Worx rider, which is not an unlikely scenario – the impetus in the chasing group would be practically non-existent. Why would a team work hard to bring things back together if they know they’ll be beaten by Wiebes on the line?
The clearest example of this came most recently, at Gent-Wevelgem. As soon as eventual-winner Marlen Reusser went away, with Wiebes still in the group behind, the outcome seemed inevitable. SD Worx sat up, and who would put their hand up to drag to group back and practically gift Lorena Wiebes yet another win? Only Elisa Balsamo comes close to Wiebes’s sprint ability, but even Trek probably wouldn’t bet on their Italian in an out-and-out sprint at the end of Gent-Wevelgem.
Fortunately for us as viewers, not all the races this spring have been as textbook as that, but Wiebes’s presence has always been important. At Trofeo Binda, for example – the one race where SD Worx really seemed to be on the back foot – it was a desire to shed Wiebes that motivated Trek-Segafredo to really push the pace on the climbs and therefore for winner Shirin van Anrooij to get away. Van Anrooij taking victory wasn’t even the plan, it was supposed to be a move to make the race hard for SD Worx and Wiebes and set up Elisa Balsamo. It all comes back to them.
And so it isn’t to say that Lorena Wiebes’s newly-honed Classics prowess is a bad thing for the races. It was exciting watching the campaign to drop her at Binda, and at Brugge-De Panne her making her way into the late move in the crosswinds made things all the more exciting. A rider like Pfeiffer Georgi could never just sit in that move with Wiebes and take it to the line, DSM had to attack, and perhaps that finale was more exciting because it was Wiebes and not a worse sprinter.
Her impact isn’t always bad, it isn’t always a neutralisation of the chase, but it is an impact worth noting. The presence of Wiebes and also Elisa Balsamo in almost all the classics this year has favoured a kind of racing designed to keep things together, more so than all-in attacks, and that is a new thing for women’s cycling. The organisation of the teams is a sign of professionalisation and a higher overall level, but at the same time, there’s something to be missed in the last-ditch, do-or-die racing that we used to see in the Classics.
Flanders on Sunday will be the biggest test yet for Wiebes and her ability in the hillier Classics. She may not be a favourite to win – that may be too much of an ask even for her – but if she can make it to the finish in the first or second group, she’ll have cemented her ability as not just a sprinter, but a very strong Classics rider too. And that will continue to affect races for future seasons, especially as her climbing may only get better.
Without trying to sound too dramatic, this spring may have marked something of a turning point in the way the Belgian Classics are raced. Organisation and team strength are more and more important, bigger groups are making it to the finish, there may always – or for the next few seasons, at least – be the threat of an ultra-fast Lorena Wiebes to throw a spanner in the works. The Tour of Flanders may be the culmination of what we’ve seen so far this Spring, but it’s just the start of what we can expect from the Classics in seasons to come.