The superior team: Elisa Longo Borghini delivers on another Lidl-Trek tactical masterclass at Tour of Flanders

With two riders on the podium, the American team definitively proves they can match and beat the formidable SD Worx 

All the talk this Flemish Classics campaign has centred around the two super-teams, SD Worx-Protime and Lidl-Trek, and which one would ultimately get the upper-hand over the other at the climatic race of the Tour of Flanders. Both teams have been dominant in the cobbled Classics building up today’s Ronde, between them winning virtually all of them, and even on the rare occasion they’ve both lost out to another team, they’ve still bossed proceedings and shaped the way race unfolds with the superior numbers. 

But when a select group of eight riders formed on the crucial climb of the Koppenberg, only one team was represented by more than one rider — and rather than the usual suspects, it was in fact UAE Team ADQ, with Silvia Persico and Karlijn Swinkels. Lidl-Trek had Borghini and SD Worx-Protime Wiebes, but that was all, leaving them seemingly evenly-matched with Visma-Lease a Bike (Marianne Vos), Canyon-SRAM (Kasia Niewiadoma), Liv AlUla Jayco (Letizia Paternoster) or Fenix-Deceuninck (Puck Pieterse). For once, it seemed as though strength-in-numbers would not be a decisive factor. 

There were some extenuating circumstances (SD Worx lost Marlen Reusser and Lidl-Trek lost Lizzie Deignan in an earlier crash), but mostly their shortcomings were down to a simple lack of legs. SD Worx’s Lotte Kopecky looked particularly short of her best form, and caused a shock when she had to dismount to walk up the Koppenberg while the aforementioned octet rode away from her. Even further behind her were teammate Demi Vollering and Lidl-Trek’s Shirin Van Anrooij, struggling even more. Neither team had control of the race, and, for all their brilliance all spring, it seemed they were falling short at the very race all the previous battles had been building up towards. 

Tour of Flanders 2024

Yet despite all these problems the race still ultimately culminated in a familiar sight of a Lidl-Trek rider winning the race, her teammate close behind celebrating while sealing third-place for herself, and a hapless isolated rival sandwiched between them in second-place. Borghini was the triumphant Lidl-Trek rider, achieving the second Tour of Flanders title of her career, and Van Anrooij was the teammate she combined with, while Niewiadoma was the unfortunate rider to be defeated by them. Lidl-Trek had managed to recover from their earlier travails and pull off yet another collective masterstroke. 

Just how did Lidl-Trek manage to win from such an unpromising situation? Crucially, although Deignan abandoned and Lucinda Brand and Elisa Balsamo were dropped fatally early on, Van Anrooij dug deep after the Koppenberg to stay in contention. After cresting that climb, she formed part of a chase group led by the SD Worx duo of Kopecky and Vollering. And even when Vollering dropped her after the Kruisberg, she still did not give up hope. 

It was a long, hard chase from each of that trio, as riders from their rival teams up ahead were determined not to let their old foes back into contention, but each made it back eventually. As Persico’s UAE Team ADQ teammate, Swinkels was led upon a lot to do much of the pace-setting, but didn’t have the strength to dump the chasers out of contention for good in the manner that SD Worx-Protime and Lidl-Trek so often do when in a similar situation. First Vollering 24km from the finish, after a long solo chase; then Van Anrooij 3km later; then shortly after Kopecky, just before the Oude Kwaremont. 

In hindsight, the moment Van Anrooij rejoined the leaders might just have been the turning point of the whole race, thanks to an inspired tactical decision by the Dutchwoman. Rather than sit on the back of the group to recover, as the two SD Worx-Protime riders had done, she used the momentum she had from chasing to go straight over the top of them, catching them all off guard. Only Swinkels tried to follow, and she could never quite latch onto her wheel, leaving Van Anrooij alone and clear. Despite having been dropped on the Koppenberg, Van Anrooij was at the very front of the race, and by the top of the Kwaremont had a sizable lead of 20 seconds. 

All this allowed Lidl-Trek to start playing the numbers game they've reaped so much rewards with this spring. Van Anrooij’s presence out front meant Borghini had an armchair ride, and she had the luxury of sitting back while the other teams — most of all SD Worx-Protime — spent energy leading the chase. And having rested up, Borghini unleashed all her saved energy with an explosive attack on the Paterberg, a brilliant move that saw her drop every rider left in the chasing group. 

Every rider, that is, apart from Kasia Niewiadoma. Though the Polish rider has been guilty in the past of naive tactics, and wearing herself out by riding too hard in races, today she rode what was essentially a tactically flawless ride. She did just enough turns at the front of the group to keep other riders in the chase group happy with her, and only made attacks at appropriate moments rather than waste her legs committing to moves unlikely to be successful. Then upon going clear with Borghini, she made sure that the Italian did most of the work as they joined up to Van Anrooij shortly after Paterberg, forming a new lead group of three. 

Being in a lead group with two riders from the same team is always a tricky position to be in, yet Niewiadoma continued to play a smart game. Each continued to take their turns, aware of the still potent threat of the chase group behind featuring Kopecky, Vollering, Vos, Persico and Pieterse that was never more than about 20 seconds behind. In the lead-up to the sprint, Niewiaoma was attentive, keeping a watchful eye for any attacks, and snuffing one immediately when Van Anrooij tried to jump clear 1km from the finish. And come the sprint herself, she was also careful not to lead them out from the front, instead holding the ideal position of second wheel behind Van Anrooij and ahead of Borghini.

Elisa Longo Borghini, Tour of Flanders 2024

Yet despite Niewiadoma’s great work, Lidl-Trek still came out on top thanks to Borghini’s marginally superior sprint finish. The team may have had a moment of panic when the Pole made her initial jump in the sprint, but were ultimately proven right in backing the Italian in a sprint finish against her. For Borghini, the win can be added to her previous Ronde title from way back in 2015 and her Paris-Roubaix triumph two years ago as the very best results in her brilliant career, and confirms her status as one of the very best of her generation. And for Lidl-Trek, it was another showcase of brilliant teamwork, resulting in the major victory they’ve been longing for after a spring campaign in which they have mounted a real challenge towards SD Worx-Protime. If it wasn’t already clear that they had closed the gap to the former outright best team in the world, it certainly is now.

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