The 10th edition of this three-day event brought us some of the grittiest, most exciting and extreme racing so far this season. Thanks to a crowdfunding campaign, the event was broadcasted live, and we were treated to an excellent show.
From the fast-paced bunch kick on the opening stage resulting in a dramatic and unfortunate crash for Team DSM’s Lorena Wiebes, to laps of the famous Col du Vam on the final day in biblical rain and wind, we were kept on the edge of our seats.
Here are a few of the things we learnt from the 2021 edition of The Healthy Ageing Tour:
Ellen van Dijk should take on a leadership role more often
Ellen van Dijk setting off on the 14.4km ITT – Photo credit: Sportfoto.nl
Typically strong Dutch winds on the morning of the time-trial stage on the second day of the race led to both a last minute delay of start times and stricter regulations on equipment. With rider safety the main priority, the organisation only allowed road bikes to be used to tackle the 14.4km course.
Perhaps a testament to her experience, four-time winner of the race Ellen van Dijk was one rider who did not appear to be fazed by these last minute changes. She won by a convincing margin of 26 seconds over SD Worx’s Amy Pieters. The course was certainly suited to van Dijk’s strengths: straight roads which required raw power to battle the unrelenting winds.
Photo credit: Sportfoto.nl
While van Dijk’s impressive form continued to show in the final stage of the race, her tactical astuteness is even more noteworthy. Despite help from her Trek-Segafredo team early on, she found herself increasingly isolated at the front of the main peloton, with a dangerous break of five riders up the road. Her teammate Lauretta Hanson was called back from the front group to assist the chase, but van Dijk had to make the final bridge across alone.
Aware of this big expenditure of energy, she played a risky but clever game for the rest of the race. When SD Worx’s Lonneke Uneken attacked and ended up with a gap which gave her the virtual race lead, van Dijk stayed calm and wouldn’t be lured into chasing Uneken down alone.
As Uneken began to tire towards the end of the stage, the gap between her and the chasing group narrowed, and van Dijk was left with enough energy to make a strong, final ascent of the Col du Vam, winning the GC overall.
Someone with less experience might have panicked under the pressure, but van Dijk’s cool and collected demeanor is something we’d like to see more often as the season progresses.
We never want to ride up the Col du Vam seventeen times
Photo credit: Sportfoto.nl
Only 34 riders finished the Healthy Ageing Tour this year, thanks to the cruel 15% slopes of the VAM-berg, the man-made Dutch mountain in the heart of the Drenthe cycle park. The number of riders losing contact with the bunch each lap was akin to an elimination race on the track – if you were at the back approaching the climb, you were very unlikely to see the front of the race again.
We saw the Col du Vam feature in the Dutch National Championships last year, but as part of a longer course. The shorter laps in the Healthy Ageing Tour meant even less respite for the riders each lap, with the difficulty of the 24% cobbled ramps accentuated by the cold and rainy conditions.
The sight of riders gritting their teeth and grinding up this relentless climb was cycling at its most difficult: it was a pure race of attrition. It wasn't something we envied, watching from our sofas.
SD-Worx have even more cards to play than we anticipated
Photo credit: Sportphoto.nl
Despite missing out on the overall GC win, SD Worx took wins in two of the three stages of the race. Following a textbook well-timed leadout from her teammates, Jolien d’Hoore outsprinted Alice Barnes in stage one, avoiding the chaos and crashes along the way.
More surprising though, was the win of 21 year old Lonneke Uneken in the race’s queen stage on day three. Approaching the final day, Uneken was the fourth SD Worx rider on GC, meaning no one was expecting her to be the rider to get the opportunity to go on the attack. Perhaps playing on the complacency of other teams, who may have expected a bigger name such as Amy Pieters to be sent up the road for SD Worx, Uneken opened up a big gap very quickly.
Until the last lap, Uneken was agonisingly close to taking enough time to seal the top spot on GC, despite having also been in the early break of the day. Opening up what was, at one point, a three-minute gap on the calibre of riders who were in the group behind, is testament to the strength of the young Dutch rider.
Uneken is only in her second year with SD Worx and has already produced some formidable results, such as second in the U23 European Championships last year. She is yet another name to add to the growing list of possible leaders for SD Worx.
Emma Norsgaard is much more than a sprinter
Emma Norsgaard has proved an extremely strong time triallist (Photo credit: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)
By her own admission, Emma Norsgaard is a sprinter. Thanks to her fast finish, she can win from both mass bunch sprints and smaller groups. Her performance at the Healthy Ageing Tour, however, proved she can also excel in both time trials and hilly parcours.
Given her exceptional results so far this season, she may have been disappointed to finish in 11th place in the opening stage, but her performances in both the time trial and in the hilly final day put her in serious contention for the general classification.
Losing only six seconds to former World Individual Time Trial champion, Lisa Brennauer, Norsgaard finished an impressive fourth place in the 14km ITT. This, plus her seventh place at the ITT in the World Championships last year, show that Norsgaard can excel in many disciplines and is a threat to her competitors in shorter stage races as well as in the classics.
On the final day of the race, Norsgaard rode strongly during every brutal ascent of the Col du Vam, putting in a powerful final kick to secure second place on the stage from the small group behind Uneken. Norsgaard’s ability to climb so strongly, combined with her sprinting prowess, make us think that a big win for this young rider can’t be far away.
Drops’ Joscelin Lowden is one to watch
Joscelin Lowden (Photo credit: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)
If you follow the UK Time Trial scene closely, Lowden’s name will not be unfamiliar. She has multiple national TT medals, including a win in the 25 mile time-trial championships last year. She made her debut riding for Great Britain in the Mixed Relay TTT at the World Championships in 2019, helping her team to an impressive bronze medal. It was reported that she recently set a new (unofficial) UCI World Hour Record for women, so perhaps her stellar performance at the Healthy Ageing Tour should not have come as such a surprise.
However, we have yet to see her race much in Europe, so there was the question of how she would fare against a stacked international field in a stage race. However, Lowden rode with both tactical awareness and raw strength, showing that her potential extends beyond time trialling alone.
Stage one wasn’t best suited to her, predictably finishing in a mass bunch sprint, but a canny attack to win a three second time bonus meant she still finished with a small headstart in the GC race.
Lowden’s time-trial performance was really impressive. Sixth place among seasoned World Tour professionals in only her second UCI race in the last two years proved she is able to compete at the top level of women’s cycling. She rode strongly on day three – despite having a mechanical on the final lap – and finished 11th on GC overall.
For a rider from a smaller team, with a lack of race miles and experience, Lowden’s performance should not be overlooked. She will be well suited to hillier classics such as Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege later this season, and she is a great option for GB at the Time Trial World Championships this year.