Omloop Het Nieuwsblad: Why Vos's victory shows SD Worx dominance will be tough to maintain in 2024

Despite a continued formidable strength in numbers, the resurgence of rivals shows SD Worx may not have things their own way quite as often this season

Annemiek van Vleuten’s retirement at the end of last season felt like it came at an unfortunate time. Not for Van Vleuten herself — she had the honour of going out on a high in a year where she remained near, if not quite at, her very best; and, at the age of 40, had surely earned a rest following a career of pushing herself to the limit with countless long-range attacks. But for cycling as a whole, it felt she was needed more than ever last year. The Dutchwoman was one of the few riders in the peloton, perhaps the only one, that the SD Worx super-team genuinely feared. Her raw power alone was often enough to overcome the strength in numbers they invariably have in races, and, at the Giro and Vuelta, was responsible for denying SD Worx some of the few major races they didn’t win last year. With her gone, who was left to challenge their stranglehold on the peloton?

Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad suggests that predictions of SD Worx total dominance in the post-Van Vleuten peloton might be premature. The team was not able to control the race in their usual fashion, instead being forced on the backfoot by Lidl-Trek. Then in the finale, following the climb of Muur-Kapelmuur, they first found themselves in the rare situation of being outnumbered by a team with Lidl-Trek having both Elisa Longo Borghini and Shirin van Anrooij to their sole representative Lotte Kopecky; and, even when Kopecky managed to survive their relentless attacks, still wound up missing out on victory to Marianne Vos (Visma-Lease a Bike) in the final sprint.

What was interesting about the defeat was that it wasn’t a case of a new generation of developing young talents coming through who took them by surprise, but rather a return to form from old-timers. In particular, Vos’ resurgent comeback was extraordinary to behold, even in a career full of such comebacks. She endured a difficult 2023 season, struggling with an injury in her left leg, and underwent surgery to her iliac artery during the winter to try and sort the issue. Returning from surgery at the age of 36 years old is not easy to do, especially for someone who’s had as long a career as Vos had had, yet the Dutch veteran looked back to her best. Victory on Saturday means 2024 becomes the 18th calendar year in which she has won a race, as well as being her first ever Omloop title, a race she had never before ridden. Considering that her career started before, and will end after, both those of Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten, her longevity is another reason she is the greatest of all time.

You could tell from how smoothly Vos rode the cobbles that she was going well, and Kopecky must have been concerned when she managed to stay glued to her wheel on both the Muur and Bosberg. They kept a watchful eye on each other in the final run-in to the finish, and both ultimately decided to back their sprint by opting not to attack — a decision that proved Vos right for doing so when she came out on top. That outcome was another inversion of the balance of power last year, when Kopecky was one of the quickest finishers in the peloton. She’ll be less confident about taking on Vos in a sprint in future races this year.

Having to contend with an on-song Marianne Vos will pose plenty of problems for SD Worx, but they may have to be even more wary of rival team Lidl-Trek this year. They were the team that took the race to them on Saturday, spearheaded by another rider who, like Vos, was hampered last year by fitness problems — Elisa Longo Borghini. Prior to this weekend, the Italian hadn’t finished on the podium of any race since winning a stage at the Giro Donne last July, following a double whammy of crashing out of the latter, and suffering from a skin infection later in the year. Add to that a Covid positive that disrupted her spring, it becomes clear why she simply wasn’t able to get going all year.

At Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday, she looked fresh and back to her best for the first time in a long time. She rode with her trademark aggression, attacking from far out on the Haaghoek stretch of cobbles, about 35km from the finish. Even when she was eventually caught by the select group featuring Kopecky and Vos, she continued to attack, teaming up with Lidl-Trek teammate Van Anrooij to attack over and over again in an attempt to make the most of their numerical advantage.

Even though they were ultimately unsuccessful, and had to settle for the frustrating finish of third and fourth behind Vos and Kopecky, Lidl-Trek will take great heart from their performance. It’s very rare for them to outnumber SD Worx in any race, and they’re also on their way to being further boosted by the return of more riders. As well as Borghini, Elisa Balsamo seems to be recovering from a difficult, injury-affected 2023, following two sprint wins at Setmana Valencian with 10th place at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a rare she isn’t especially well-suited to; and Lizzie Deignan, though off the pace on Saturday, is still confident of returning to her best following an underpar 2023. Van Anrooij’s ability to stay with the top favourites on the climbs also suggests she could be poised to improve even more following her breakthrough 2023 season, something that could also happen to young climber Gaia Realini.

In hindsight, SD Worx’s prolific 2023 might have been as much about the troubles and misfortunes of their rivals as it was the improvement of their own. While we shouldn’t downplay the extraordinary achievements of Kopecky, Vollering, Lorena Wiebes and Marlen Reusser, neither should we expect them to necessarily enjoy quite as much success again this year now that the likes of Vos and Lidl-Trek’s contingent appear to have overcome the problems holding them back last year. Even without Annemiek van Vleuten, 2024 promises to be a competitive season.

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