Around this time a year ago all eyes were on the budding rivalry between Lorena Wiebes and Elisa Balsamo. But by February of 2023 a new sprinter shot onto the scene: Wiebes’ former leadout on Team DSM, Charlotte Kool.
Kool and Wiebes swapped off wins at the UAE Tour in February with Kool taking two of four stages and Wiebes taking one. Kool’s first victory could have been considered a fluke, as a crash in the final four kilometers impacted Wiebes (even as Wiebes fought back to finish second). The two swapped positions for the second stage and it seemed order was restored. But when Kool expertly navigated the finale of the last stage to win head to head, it was clear Kool would make Wiebes’ life a little harder in sprints to come.
With her new SD Worx team, Wiebes is climbing out of the “pure sprinter” box she occupied in her old outfit, showing a growing aptitude for cobbles racing. At Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the first WorldTour race on European soil, she won the bunch sprint for second behind her solo teammate Lotte Kopecky. She won the next day at Omloop van het Hageland and a few weeks later at the WWT Ronde van Drenthe.
That’s not to say her sprint skills are any less formidable. On Wednesday, Wiebes won Scheldeprijs for the third year in a row, but hot on her heels was Kool. The DSM rider has just eight race days in 2023 compared to Wiebes’ 13, due to an ill-timed bout of illness.
At Scheldeprijs SD Worx was lined up, all six of them, with seven km to go, Wiebes tucked safely into line in fifth, with one teammate acting as sweeper for the sprint train. Next to them the other teams were down to two or three riders, including DSM.
Into the final kilometer Wiebes still had multiple teammates leading the peloton and as they rounded the bend to the finish line, despite SD Worx’s commanding numbers and role, Kool sat calm and collected just behind the European champion.
Wiebes won the day, by a bike throw. With four wins already this season, she’s holding her title as the best sprinter in the women’s peloton, but to the glee of cycling fans, Kool’s emergence sets up a fascinating fight between the two former teammates.
That may be the most interesting aspect of their budding rivalry. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, strategies, and how the other ticks. It’s a mind game as well as a test of strength when they come to the line together. They’re also close in age: while Wiebes has several more years’ experience as a pro, at 24 she’s just a year older than Kool, which means the sport will be treated to many matchups in the years ahead.
Of four races so far this season where both have contested the sprint, they’re tied 2-2. As we head into stage-race season it will be exciting to see how Team DSM continues to develop their up-and-coming sprinter, and how Wiebes will continue to grow away from that pure sprinter role. And with flat stages up for grabs in all the major WorldTour stage races of the summer we’re bound to see these two elbow to elbow again soon.