Lidl-Trek provide biggest challenge yet to SD Worx dominance despite Wiebes victory at Gent-Wevelgem

A narrow victory for the Dutch super-team sets up the tantalising prospect of closely fought battles in the upcoming Classics

This time last year, losing to SD Worx by a photo finish felt in many ways like a victory. Such was the Dutch team’s dominance that more often than not their rival teams found themselves racing only for second, so simply getting close to beating them was something to celebrate. However, when consultation of the photo finish at Gent-Wevelgem eventually confirmed, after several tense minutes, that SD Worx's Lorena Wiebes had just about edged out Elisa Balsamo (Lidl-Trek) in the bunch sprint, Balsamo certainly wasn't celebrating. The Italian was racing to win, and had the form to believe she could even get the better of the world’s quickest sprinter.

SD Worx took the victory, Wiebes defending Marlen Reusser’s title from 12 months ago, but a photo finish seemed like an apt way to end the race, as right now there is barely anything to choose between them and Lidl-Trek. The gulf between the two teams has closed dramatically this season, and Lidl-Trek are only trailing SD Worx by two wins to three in the six WorldTour Classics raced so far this spring (Visma-Lease a Bike’s Marianne Vos claiming the only one so far not won by those two teams, at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad). Whereas SD Worx were untouchable last year, Lidl-Trek have now proven themselves consistently able to match them in the majority of Classics.

In particular, Balsamo and Wiebes are looking intriguingly evenly-matched in sprint finishes. Balsamo proved she had the beating of Wiebes teammate Lotte Kopecky when she stormed past her in the final metres of Trofeo Alfredo Binda last weekend, and on Thursday claimed the scalp of Charlotte Kool (Team DSM-Firmenich PostNL) to win Brugge-De Panne. Wiebes might have proven to be too fast for her earlier in the year at the uphill sprint Ronde van Drenthe, where Balsamo was a distant second, but Gent-Wevelgem’s sprint was much closer, with barely anything separating the two.

Balsamo’s form is significantly up from last year, and she’s currently enjoying her best run since her hot streak during the sprint of 2022. In fact, her results this spring have almost mirrored that year, when she pulled-off a hat-trick of successive wins at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Classic Brugge-De Panne and Gent-Wevelgem; a feat that Wiebes denied her from repeating this year by the barest of margins. With Balsamo in this kind of form, Lidl-Trek have a dangerous card they were hardly able to play last year due to her injury issues and lack of form, and during Gent-Wevelgem they were invested in playing it, taking it upon themselves to chase the attacks when they went on the climbs.

Lidl-Trek might have got the sprint they were hoping for, but SD Worx still took the win with Wiebes. This is a race that suits her well, given how frequently it ends in a bunch sprint, yet up until now she had never before triumphed here, failing to finish both of the last two editions and being egged out by Kirsten Wild in a sprint on debut in 2019. This was a vintage performance from the Dutchwoman from start to finish, too, and she demonstrated so much more than just her quick finishing sprint. She was right towards the front when all the key selections were made, first as one of the select six riders able to stay with Lotte Kopecky when she accelerated first time up the Kemmelberg, then, even more impressively, one of only two along with Pfeiffer Georgi (Team DSM-Firmenich PostNL) when Kopecky did the same the next time up. And despite using up all that energy, she still had enough left in the tank to win the final sprint when the race came back together.

Though only just. The fact Wiebes’ winning margin was so narrow could be of some significance in the future, as SD Worx can now longer afford to be quite so confident that she can always be relied upon to win in the event of a sprint. In recent years Wiebes has been the team’s insurance policy, fulfilling a similar role to that Jolien d’Hoore used to by holding back while her teammates attack, and offering a peerless sprint finish should they fail to get away successfully. Today, they were so sure that she would win in a sprint that despite finding themselves in the powerful position of having three riders (Wiebes, Kopecky and Marlen Reusser) in an elite group of eight that formed in the aftermath of the final Kemmelberg ascent, they opted against pushing on, worried of going too deep and not having enough left in the tank at the finish to defeat their fellow escapees: Georgi, Borghini, Shirin van Anrooij, Puck Pieterse (Fenix-Deceuninck) and Karlijn Swinkels (UAE Team ADQ).

The tactic ultimately paid off, with Wiebes taking the win, but the narrowness of the margin may give SD Worx pause for thought should such a circumstance arise in future races. As Wiebes’ climbing legs have improved, it seems some edge has been taken off her sprint. Last year Charlotte Kool (Team DSM-Firmenich PostNL) emerged as a rider capable of challenging, and sometimes beating her, in a bunch sprint, and now Balsamo seems able to push her close too. Consequently, we may see them adopt a more proactive approach in the future – not just lighting races up early on, as they did today with Kopecky’s frequent attacks on the climbs, but continuing to ride aggressively all the way to the finish.

They might have lost the battle today, but Lidl-Trek can take comfort that the war between themselves and SD Worx this spring remains a close-fought contest. While it’s true that this particular run of races suit Balsamo particularly well, and that Elisa Longo Borghini and Shirin van Anrooij will likely have to step up if they’re to succeed at the hillier, more selective terrain of the Tour of Flanders next weekend, they’re undoubtedly in a much better position that this time last year. To go from the huge 2:42 that Marlen Reusser won Gent-Wevelgem with last year to mere fractions of a tyre-length is some reduction, and bodes well for more competitive racing over the rest of the spring.

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