The Tour of Flanders is without doubt one of the most important races on the women’s WorldTour calendar. This prestigious Monument is a thrill ride not just for the riders, but also for the spectators who line the Belgian roads and for those of us who watch along on the TV.
With brutal bergs and plenty of pavè tightly packed into the 153 kilometre-long route, only the strongest of riders survive De Ronde. This is not the first time in the season that the peloton have come head-to-head with the cobbled roads of Flanders, only a few days prior to this the women raced the Dwars door Vlaanderen as a warm-up to this race.
The 2022 edition of the Tour of Flanders ended in a sprint between Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx), Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak (SD Worx). The year before, Van Vleuten won the race with a solo victory, breaking away from the peloton with 14km to go.
Last year, for the first time, the notorious Koppenberg climb was on the menu for the women's peloton. This year the climb will return, along with another killer duo: Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. But at the Tour of Flanders, there are plenty of opportunities for riders to make their move. Just 10km into the race, they will face their first climb, which will provide any daring riders an early opportunity to attack for an early breakaway. Towards the back end of the race, there is also the killer Koppenberg, which will see an enormous fight for position at the foot of the climb.
We look at the riders who could fighting for a first–place finish this year.
Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig
The FDJ-Suez rider looked to be in great form at Strade Bianche this year, taking third place behind Vollering and Kopecky, keeping world champion Van Vleuten from passing her on the crest of Via Santa Caterina. She also came 20th at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in the chasing group, displaying great riding abilities over the cobbles. The Danish rider also put in an explosive effort at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, riding in the front group for over 30km until dropping out of contention in the finale of the race.
Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig looked strong at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday (Image by Getty Images)
For the Tour of Flanders she’ll be supported by Australian Grace Brown, who proved she can put down the power at Gent-Wevelgem last weekend, splitting up the peloton on the Kemmelberg.
Uttrup Ludwig came sixth last year and has regularly been in the mix at De Ronde, but will hope to better her best place finish of third from 2019.
The reigning champion will be back on home soil, hoping to take the title for a second year – a feat only achieved by Van Vleuten. An adept climber with a fast finish, the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg are the kind of climbs Kopecky can thrive on, able to attack on these bergs if the opportunity allows.
Kopecky won the Tour of Flanders last year, on home soil and in the national jersey (Image by the Tour of Flanders)
Last year, Kopecky and her teammate Van den Broek-Blaak controlled the closing kilometres with Van Vleuten in the lead group with them. Van den Broek-Blaak emptied the tank for her Belgian teammate, making it impossible for the Movistar rider to make a long range attack. It all came down to a final sprint finish, where Kopecky just beat Van Vleuten to the line to grab victory in the Belgian national colours.
Kopecky has certainly been the rider to watch this Classics season, with two first-place finishes in the four races she has competed in. At Omloop Het Nieuwsblad she decimated the field with a long-range solo attack, flying up the Muur and riding alone for over 30km to take the win.
Kopecky and SD Worx have been an unstoppable force in the Classics this season. If the Belgian is heavily marked, the team enjoys the luxury of having a host of other that can also break clear or sprint for victory.
Having such a stacked line-up, we've even seen the riders within SD Worx racing one another. We saw this at Strade Bianche in March when Kopecky and Demi Vollering went head-to-head in a final sprint finish having distanced the rest of the field. So far they've successfully shared their Classics victories across the team, but they'll need to ensure they keep working as unit despite having four potential winners within the squad, including Gent-Wevelgem winner Marlen Reusser, star sprinter Lorena Wiebes, as well as Kopecky and Vollering.
Demi Vollering secured her second victory of the season at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday (Image by Getty Images)
Vollering currently looks like SD Worx's strongest rider. Having raced just three one-day races this season, she's won two of them. She opted to miss the Classics since her Strade Bianche victory to train at altitude, but returned to racing on Wednesday for Dwars door Vlaanderen. Here she demonstrated that the training might be paying off, storming clear of the peloton with over 10km to go and soloing to victory.
Still, unlike the Ardennes, the Tour of Flanders hasn't been a happy hunting ground for Vollering so far; a career best-place of fifth in 2021 belying her obvious talent. And while she clearly has the form to race away with victory on Sunday, the only thing that might stand in her way could be one of her own teammates going up the road.
Elisa Longo Borghini
Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo) won the Tour of Flanders back in the 2015 and has since raced every edition. Her knowledge of the race will count for a lot here, adding a great advantage for a race like this. Expect her to make the most of any indecision from any of her rivals, which could give her the chance to take this year's victory with a solo escape akin to her Paris-Roubaix triumph last year.
Elisa Longo Borgini won the women's UAE Tour this year (Image by Getty Images)
After her GC win at the inaugural women's UAE Tour, the Italian caught Covid-19 and missed several WorldTour races, including Strade Bianche. However, proving this wasn't a set back for her, she looked strong at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, leading the chase group and taking 11th place.
She'll benefit from working in tandem with Trek's fast-woman Elisa Balsamo, who'll stand a chance if she can hold on over the climbs and make it to Oudenaarde for a bunch finish.
Annemiek van Vleuten
The Movistar rider is, as always, a favourite for every race she enters, particularly after her domination last year. Van Vleuten has won the Tour of Flanders on two occasions, once in 2011 and again 10 years later in 2021. Over the decade, she has raced in every edition and achieved four podium spots since her first win – demonstrating her consistency on the Flandrian roads. She'll be looking to secure the top spot again for a record-breaking third time, an achievement no woman has secured.
The world champion had an unlucky start to 2023 with a puncture at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but it seems she's has settled into the season, taking a fourth place finish at Strade Bianche. Since then, the Dutch rider has been training at altitude and with no sneak peak at her current form before Flanders, it'll be hard to gauge whether she'll turn up and blow everyone out the water. Her strengths lie in her abilities to climb, so if she can find a chance to get away, it will be extremely difficult to stop her.
The world champion came fourth place at this year's Strade Bianche (Image by SWPix.com)
While Movistar may not boast the strength of SD Worx, Van Vleuten has the added benefit this year of a much improved team. The additions of Liane Lippert and Floortje Mackaij from DSM this year is already paying dividends, with both of them taking top-10s at Strade Bianche and Dwars door Vlaanderen. They'll provide a foil for any Van Vleuten escape should they remain in touch with the race, but also have a chance of delivering an excellent result in their own right.
We've only had two glimpses so far of Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) after her pelvic artery surgery. But in only her second race of the season, at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, she secured herself a third-place finish. Leading the race with SD Worx rider Marleen Reusser, they were caught by the chasing group with just 16km to go. When Vollering launched her attack, Vos was the only rider who could attempt to chase her compatriot's wheel. However, the Jumbo-Visma rider couldn't keep up with the race winner, perhaps due to her exertions earlier on in the day.
Marianne Vos and Marlen Reusser competing in the breakaway at Dwars door Vlaanderen (Image by Getty Images)
Looking extremely happy to be back in the WorldTour peloton, she rode with such confidence despite being missing out on the early season races. With more races under her belt, and a glittering palmarès behind her, Vos has to be considered a contender for Flanders.
That's in spite of a patchy record at the race. After three consecutive podium finishes between 2011 and 2013, including a victory in 2013, Vos did not return to the race until 2018 and has finished outside of the top-10 in her last four attempts.
She'll need to hope that she can stick in a front group over the final climbs of the race and sprint from an exhausted bunch, a scenario she has so often thrived in.
Team DSM rider Pfeiffer Georgi claimed her first WorldTour victory last week at Classic Brugge-De Panne. The Briton looks to be in excellent form as she confidently soloed her way to victory, as well as taking ninth place at Strade Bianche and fifth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. She'll certainly have the confidence in her abilities going into this race.
Pfeiffer Georgi won Brugge De-Panne last week – her first WorldTour win (Image by Getty Images)
Despite SD Worx already having a number of riders who they'll be looking to protect throughout the race, world-class sprinter Lorena Wiebes is also another option for the Dutch team. Even though Wiebes may struggle on the bergs that come in quick succession, if she can make it to the line, she'll stand a great chance of winning in a sprint finish.
Uno-X Pro Cycling Team will have either Maria Giulia Confalonieri or Elinor Barker leading them. Both riders have secured solid top 10 finishes so far this season, with Barker taking seventh place at Gent-Wevelgem, and Confalonieri taking fifth at the Ronde van Drenthe. Having not taken a podium spot yet this season, they'll be looking for opportunities that will boost the team into contention for this race.
Team Canyon-SRAM made their first splash of the Classics season at Gent-Wevelgem last week. The team put in a strong performance throughout the race which resulted in Maike van der Duin taking third place with the help of team leader Kasia Niewiadoma. Both riders are at the Tour of Flanders alongside Shari Bossuyt and Elise Chabbey. If they can repeat their effort from Gent-Wevelgem, this might be the race where they can move up the podium steps.
Kasia Niewiadoma on the start line of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this year (Image by Flanders)
Other riders who have had strong performances so far and could look for a podium spot in this year's race is Zoe Bäckstedt (EF Education-TIBCO-SVB), Kristen Faulkner (Jayco-Alula), Marta Bastianelli (UAE Team ADQ) and Silvia Persico (UAE Team ADQ).
Women's Tour of Flanders prediction:
While many of the world's best riders have had differing plans in the lead-up to this race, that changes at the Tour of Flanders, as all the best riders will be lining up for the 20th edition. With unpredictable parcours where some races have been won by fast finishers and others by punchy climbers, it is difficult to say who will take the title. However, at home on the cobbles and looking to be on flying form, we believe that Lotte Kopecky will take a second successive victory. With such depth in the SD Worx team it'll be hard to get past them and if a rider can, they'll need to do something special to beat this unrelenting team.
*Cover image by Flanders Classics