The women's peloton races over cobbled roads in Belgium

Wheel Talk Newsletter: Olympic selection season starts now

Setmana Ciclista Valenciana provided some pre-Classics entertainment, but the real show starts on Saturday in Belgium.

It’s cobbled Classics time!

Abby Mickey
by Abby Mickey 20.02.2024 Photography by
Gruber Images and Cor Vos
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Good morning/evening/generic time, and thank you for opening this edition of the Wheel Talk Newsletter. We are in the final countdown to Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which means by this time next week the peloton will have some idea of what’s to come this year. There is racing before “opening weekend” and there is racing after … let’s get into it.

But first:

Last week we were treated to four days of great women’s racing in Spain, with two SD Worx-Protime wins and two Elisa Balsamo wins. Setmana Ciclista Valenciana isn’t a WorldTour race, but with 13 of the 15 WorldTeams on the start line, it sure does feel like one.

Some talking points from the race:

The moment the race was won. After Reusser’s attack, she looks back to see where the rest are; at that very moment Niewiadoma hesitates and starts to look around and that was it, that was when the race was won/lost.

One of the biggest non-performance-related takeaways from the race, in my opinion, is not as fun to talk about.

There needs to be a limit on the number of WT teams in a non-WT race.

It’s great that we got to see some European stage racing in February, but a race like Valenciana is super important for the Continental-level teams. When 13 WorldTeams show up, not only does that make it nearly impossible for the smaller teams to perform, it also means a handful of Continental teams that are already struggling to fill their calendars don’t get into the race. It impacts the overall development of the sport; one race here or there with a full peloton of WT talent is fine, but there are fewer non-WT stage races to go around and most of the well-known ones (like this and Thüringen) are basically WT. We need more opportunities for the non-WorldTeams.

We can enjoy watching Balsamo back in winning form and also wish there was better protocol for Continental-level racing.

Racing continues…

At Omloop Het Nieuwsblad!(!!!!)

The Classics will kick off with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday. The season may have started but in a lot of ways the races in Belgium are the beginning of an important block of racing for the women. Not only are the Spring Classics some of the best races of the year, this year they are also where a lot of riders will submit their bids to race at the Paris Olympics later on in the summer. It adds another layer to the already fantastic string of races.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, despite being on the women’s calendar since 2006, only reached WorldTour status last year, when Lotte Kopecky soloed to victory. Even before it was part of the WorldTour, the prestige of the men’s event coupled with the challenging nature of the course made it a key feature in the women’s spring campaign.

Over the years there have been solo winners, successful breakaways, and fascinating duos (Annemiek van Vleuten vs. Demi Vollering in 2022), but with the deepening of the women’s peloton, will this be the first year we see a small group come to the line since 2018?

The Course

After starting in Ghent the women will race 127.1 km to finish in Ninove. Throughout the day they will race over cobbles, climbs, and cobbled climbs. Each pass of one of these obstacles will cut down on the number of riders in the peloton until there are only some remaining.

Longtime fans of cycling will recognize some of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad course since the race took on many of the same features as the Tour of Flanders. The whole course is challenging but it isn’t until the race gets into Oudenaarde that things really start to kick off.

From the famous cycling-centric town the race covers a series of climbs and cobbled sectors including the Edelareberg, Holleweg, and the Wolvenberg before taking on the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg.

After the Bosberg the peloton has a further 12 km to race, or I should say, whoever is left out front has 12 km to race.

Last year Kopecky’s winning move went on the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Belgian woman had no trouble holding off a large chasing pack to take the day.

The Players

As you might expect SD Worx-Protime is lining up with a team of winners. Not only do they have last year’s winner and our current World Champion Kopecky, but the Dutch team is also starting with Demi Vollering, Lorena Wiebes, and Marlen Reusser. So they have not two, not three, but four options.

The good news is there are multiple other teams that have more than one option. Movistar, FDJ-Suez, and Canyon-SRAM will all have some cards to play. Movistar has Emma Norsgaard, who is getting better and better at this type of race, Arlennis Sierra (also showing improvement every year), and Floortje Mackaij, who really knows her way around the Classics.

FDJ-Suez’s duo of Loes Adegeest and Amber Kraak will come in handy for the French team, and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig already has one WT win this year. That makes a difference in confidence going into these early European races.

Niewiadoma and Soraya Paladin for Canyon-SRAM are two more numbers to throw in there, and then if you factor in Lidl-Trek you have Lizzie Deignan, Lauretta Hanson, and Balsamo. Finally, Vos will line up for Visma-Lease a Bike alongside Anna Henderson.

All of those riders together would wipe the floor with SD Worx-Protime if they coordinated.

If the race is aggressive mainly on the climbs, many of the above names will be active. Mainly Niewiadoma, but Vollering will have her marked. If the action takes place more on the cobbles, it’s Wiebes and Kopecky who will play with the field and riders like Deignan, Kraak, Sierra, Norsgaard, Vos, and even Pfeiffer Georgi of DSM Firmenich-PostNL who will be there.

A few other notable names: Silvia Persico of UAE Team ADQ, Simone Boilard of Uno-X Mobility, Sarah Roy of Cofidis, Noemi Rüegg of EF Education-Cannondale, Ruby Roseman-Gannon of Liv AlUla Jayco, and of course Puck Pieterse of Fenix-Deceuninck.

That was a lot of names but this is what makes Omloop Het Nieuwsblad so great. It is one of the only races of the year that we go into almost blind. We know Wiebes and Kopecky are riding well, and we’ve seen glimpses of some others, but as a whole, we have no idea what the new season will bring.

So bring it on!

Wheel Talk Podcast

This week is a special one for fans of the Wheel Talk Podcast! We’ve got two, I repeat TWO, episodes this week.

First on Monday a special bonus episode. Whilst in Australia Matilda Raynolds sat down with Heidi Franz to talk about Heidi’s experience “making it” in Europe, her time in Australia, and the phrases she may (or may not have) picked up there.

Next, on Tuesday, we released our usual Wheel Talk Podcast episode with Loren, Gracie and myself in which we discussed Setmana Ciclista Valenciana, the upcoming Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak’s potential return to the peloton on Sunday at Omloop van het Hageland.

Both episodes are on the Wheel Talk and Escape Collective feeds everywhere podcasts are found.

Let’s Discuss

A bid for Paris 2024 starts on Saturday.

The last two years were about getting points to secure each nation’s spots in the Olympic road race, but now everyone’s attention will turn to who gets those spots. Some nations and riders will already have it pretty set. If Kasia Niewiadoma wants to race in Paris, a spot is hers (Poland has four). The same goes for Marlen Reusser for Switzerland (also four). But there are other nations who will have a much harder time with those decisions.

Take the USA, for example. In previous years the American team has earned a maximum of four riders, but this year they will only be allowed two. Even with four spots, there is always some drama that comes with selection in the USA. Make sure you’ve got your popcorn ready when the shortlist is released.

There are a few riders in contention for the two U.S. spots. Kristen Faulkner wasn’t selected for Tokyo and went into the initial steps of arbitrating for a spot but ended up backing down. Coryn Rivera did go to Tokyo, and will definitely be aiming for Paris, but didn’t have a great 2023. The two are on the same trade team so that should make things really fun on the EF Education-Cannondale bus.

Then there’s Ruth Edwards, who went to Rio de Janeiro for the track and Tokyo on the road before taking a three-year break, mostly racing gravel and mountain bikes. She is back this year with Human Powered Health, and her performance in the spring could really shake up the rest of the American’s plans.

Lauren Stephens is gunning for Olympic selection but isn’t on a WorldTeam. She did win the Pan-American Games last year, not to be confused with the PanAm Championships (which has a lot more points and carries more weight).

A staff member kneels down to talk to Chloe Dygert after a bike race.
Chloe Dygert with Rachel Voyles after the road race in Tokyo.

And then there is Chloe Dygert, who is all but guaranteed a spot as the current time trial World Champion (plus track, plus she’s really strong on the road … the U.S. pretty much only has one spot up for grabs).

The Netherlands, even with four spots, will have a time of it filling them. Vollering, Wiebes, Van Anrooij, Kool, Markus, Bredewold, and Vos, to name a few. Having Van Vleuten and Anna van der Breggen out of the team will make it a little more clear-cut, but that depends on how the spring goes …

For all these riders, plus all the riders from every nation who have even a slim chance of being selected to represent their country, the fight starts on Saturday. A good result at even one of these races can put you on the radar. Consistent performances, and you’re in the conversation.

Two cyclists joke around at the start of a bike race.
Nice to see even this formidable pair has a laugh on the start line. Van der Breggen and Vollering at the start of the Tokyo road race.

Canada has two spots. A WT win, top five in a WT race, and points gained all factor into the decision of who wears the maple leaf in Paris.

There are a lot of complicated factors that go into Olympic selection, and a lot of politics involved within governing bodies, but what you need to know ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the whole block of Classics races is that these are the final months for the athletes to prove their worth to their nations. It is the last time they have any control over whether or not they will be selected.

That simple fact will mean we see more racing for the minor places, more action all over the race, from riders you know and some you may not.

As the sport becomes more professional and the Olympics fades from grace (that is for another newsletter, I think) the selection process and the leadup to the Games will become less important, but at this moment in time, there is still a lot riding on that one race in July.

The joys of social media

Lidl-Trek announced that Gaia Realini has extended her contract with the American team through 2027. Great news for all involved, and a great little video to announce it.

A picture worth a couple of words

If you’ve never had the opportunity to ride your bike in the Flanders region, I highly recommend you add it to your wishlist. Riding over the roads, you gain an entirely new appreciation for the women and men who race there. To even just ride over these cobbles is to feel one with cycling legends.

A black and white picture of a cobbled road with trees and a town in the background.

This photo of the Haaghoek sector from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad recon with Jumbo-Visma taken by Jered Gruber was taken in 2022 but could so easily be dug up from some past history book on the area. There’s so much I love about this image. The glow of the cobbles makes them look beautiful and inviting as opposed to leg-breaking. The trees frame the road and the town in the distance. This street will look very different come Saturday.

Taylor Swift trivia

April is shaping up to be a big month for the overly emotional. In addition to Taylor Swift’s new album The Tortured Poets Department (out April 19) which is looking like it’s going to wreak havoc on our emotional well-being as a society, Lizzy McAlpine announced her new album Older will be out April 5th. Last week she also released the title track off the album, and it made me cry for hours so … here you go.

Until next time!

Thank you so much for reading this edition of the Wheel Talk Newsletter. I will be back next week, probably with a lot to talk about! As always, reach out if you have anything you want me to dive into on this newsletter, or on the podcast. And happy Opening Weekend to all those who celebrate.

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