It wasn’t on the Kemmelberg that the 2023 women’s Gent-Wevelgem was decided. Nor was it on any of the race’s other climbs. Instead, a seemingly innocuous flat stretch of road surrounded by farmland, somewhere in between the Baneberg and the Kemmelberg, witnessed the fateful moment when it became inevitable that Marlen Reusser (SD Worx) would win the race.
The Swiss rider had slipped off the front of the peloton a few kilometres before on the Baneberg, and had built a lead of about 20 seconds: a dangerous margin, but nothing that wasn’t manageable for the large chasing peloton. But on this stretch of road, 37km from the finish, the chasers made their fateful error. The pace in the peloton suddenly dropped as the riders eased up and looked at each other, nobody wanting to commit to putting their nose to the wind. Within moments Reusser’s lead grew to 30 seconds, then 40, then 50. By the time she reached the foot of the Kemmelberg just two kilometres later, her advantage had ballooned to over one minute.
Suddenly the situation had grown out of hand, and the task of bringing back Reusser had transformed from probable to only remotely possible.
If there was to be any hope of Reusser being brought back, inroads had to be made on the Kemmelberg, and FDJ-Suez’s Grace Brown took it upon herself to lead the chase. She did a fine job too, splitting the peloton into bits on the climb’s famously steep gradients and treacherous cobblestones, and reaching the top with just six riders on her wheel.
The problem was that one of those riders was Lotte Kopecky, Reusser’s SD Worx teammate. As she had demonstrated the first time up the Kemmelberg, when she led the peloton over the top, Kopecky is a master of riding on the cobblestones, and looked untroubled even as Brown lay down the hammer. It must have been a heart-sinking moment when Brown turned around to see the Belgian glued to her wheel — so long as Kopecky was there to follow wheels and wait for the sprint, any chase would likely be in vain.
By the time the Kemmelberg was crested, Reusser's lead had grown to 1-20, which was more than enough for a rider with a diesel engine as powerful as hers to hold on to for the final 30km run-in to the finish. It would take a seriously dramatic twist for her not to win from this position — which nearly did happened near the finish when, just five kilometres from the line, she took a wrong turn. But by now her lead was already well over two minutes, and she still had time to soak up the applause, unzip her rain jacket and enjoy the moment as she crossed the finish line victorious.
The result followed a recent pattern this spring of race-winning solo attacks from riders more used to riding as domestiques. Shirin van Anrooij (Trek-Segafredo) attacked 25km from the finish to win Trofeo Alfredo Binda last weekend, while her Trek-Segafredo leader and defending champion Elisa Balsamo marked wheels and sprinted for second in the bunch behind. Then on Wednesday, Pfeiffer Georgi combined with DSM teammate Megan Jastrab to break clear from a small leading group a few kilometres from the finish, after the team’s top sprinter Charlotte Kool had been dropped earlier.
Just as Van Anrooij was able to ride away while her competitors were worried about Balsamo, Reusser benefited from the fear her teammates Kopecky and Lorena Wiebes struck in the other chasers. Having already respectively won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Ronde van Drenthe already this spring, these two riders were the favourites going into the race, and much of the speculation was about how the pair would work together. With so much focus on these two riders, Reusser’s threat was underestimated, and she was able to break clear unmarked.
Though she certainly benefited from her team, Reusser also deserves considerable praise for her ride as an individual. This was a trademark move from the Swiss, and few riders in the peloton can produce so much power riding alone for so long as she can. We’ve seen her win in a similar manner before, most notably to win stage four of the Tour de France Femmes last year, but this was her first ever victory in a top one-day Classic.
Her dominance was reflected in the winning margin: a whopping 2-42, despite her late mishap in taking the wrong corner. And it’s an even more impressive result when you consider how Gent-Wevelgem is usually reserved for the sprinters: by winning this way, Reusser bucks the recent trend of bunch sprint finishers to become the first rider since Chantal van den Broek Blaak (SD Worx) in 2016 to win Gent-Wevelgem with a solo attack.
That may have as much to do with the treacherous weather conditions as it did her individual strength and SD Worx’s tactics. Although this was not an especially windy Gent-Wevelgem, it was a wet one, and the slippery roads and cobblestones wreaked havoc in the peloton. There were multiple crashes, with Reusser herself even caught out once while ascending the Baneberg for the first time, although thankfully she had a soft landing.
Far worse off were the riders who hit the deck in an incident about 45km from the finish, when a rider near the front of the peloton lost balance and took out several riders, among them Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) and Pfeiffer Georgi. Then, during the run-in to the finish, virtually all of the top sprinters left in the chasing peloton (Wiebes, Kopecky, Balsamo and UAE Team ADQ’s Chiara Consonni) were taken out of convention in yet another big crash, leaving the final podium spots up for grabs. Even then the survivors struggle to get organised, and another group of stragglers (still minus the top sprinters) caught up to them on the finishing straight, from which Megan Jastrab (Team DSM) sprinted to take second place, ahead of Maike van der Duin (Canyon-SRAM) in third. They were major results for two developing 21-year-old riders, but the day belonged to Marlen Reusser.