Demi Vollering’s glorious spring continues with victory at La Flèche Wallonne, a result that has been years in the making and completes her rise up the ranks to the very top of the peloton.
You can trace Vollering’s career trajectory through each of her five career appearances at Flèche Wallonne, where her status has increased with each year. In her 2019 debut and follow-up in 2020, she was a young, emerging talent, mixing it up with the favourites while riding for Parkhotel Valkenburg to finish third in the former and fifth in the latter. Then, following a move to SD Worx, she became a deluxe super-domestique, playing a vital role in delivering team leader Anna van der Breggen to victory by setting the pace leading up to the Mur de Huy and catching the dangerous breakaway of Ruth Winder. And finally, in 2022, she made the leap to SD Worx’s co-team leader, with multiple podium finishes, but no wins, in the most elite races.
Now, with a career-first victory at the Classic, she continues an outstanding spring that has seen her become one of the two or three very best riders in the world.
So far this season, no rider has equaled her success. Remarkably, this is her fourth win of the season from just seven race days following victories at Strade Bianche, Amstel Gold and Dwars door Vlaanderen; only her SD Worx teammate Lorena Wiebes has as many. On two occasions she’s finished second, including as part of a triumphant SD Worx one-two with Lotte Kopecky at the Tour of Flanders, while the sole occasion she has finished outside of the top two (Omloop Het Nieuwsblad), she was still part of the winning team thanks again to Kopecky.
The Mur de Huy is notorious for being a climb that’s difficult to master, one that can take several attempts of trial and error before understanding its rhythms and nuances; it even took the great Anna van der Breggen four attempts before the first of her historic seven successive titles. Vollering has had a similar experience, and she had approached the climb differently each year before at last finding a winning strategy this time.
It was clear from her fifth place finish on debut at the age of just 22, four years ago, that she was a great fit for it, but she perhaps went too deep too early the following year, when she attempted to attack Van der Breggen only to fade into third at the finish, looking spent as crossed the line. Then in 2022, she arguably went too far the other way by riding conservatively, choosing to follow Annemiek van Vleuten’s wheel and wait for her to instigate, and ultimately finish third behind her and Marta Cavalli.
With the previously unbeatable Van der Breggen retired, and the successor to her Flèche Wallonne crown Cavalli struggling for form, Vollering was the clear favourite for victory, especially following her success at Amstel Gold three days ago. Far from folding under this pressure, she embraced it, and made the bold move of accelerating right from the bottom of the Mur de Huy. At first Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) was the only rider to follow, and the pair opened up a small gap. Niewiadoma was soon dropped, and when she continued sliding backwards and was caught by Liane Lippert (Movistar) and Mavi García (Liv Racing TeqFind) it became clear she’d gone too far into the red.
But as Lippert clawed her way back up to Vollering’s wheel, making the catch just a few hundred metres from the top, the question was raised: had Vollering gone too early as well? Not so, it turned out, as she drew upon yet more reserves of strength to accelerate once more and drop Lippert, riding to the line solo and giving herself time to celebrate as she took the victory.
What made the victory an even more impressive display of strength was how Vollering raced prior to the final climb. Rather than preserve all her energy until the finish, she accelerated on the Côte de Cherave five kilometres earlier, and her effort was enough to reduce the lead group to just eleven riders.
Interestingly, Vollering actually dropped all of her remaining teammates with this move, leaving herself isolated and seemingly vulnerable to attacks from other teams. Even when she slowed down and eight other riders re-joined the group, none of them were from SD Worx, while Movistar (Van Vleuten and Lippert), Trek-Segafredo (Elisa Longo Borghini and Gaia Realini) and Canyon-SRAM (Niewiadoma and Elise Chabbey) all had multiple representatives. If Vollering’s previous success this spring has been as part of the collective might of SD Worx, this victory — achieved without her partner in crime Kopecky — was very much an individual triumph.
Vollering did, however, still need her teammates earlier in the day, to neutralise a series of dangerous moves. Van Vleuten was the first instigator, when she went clear during the first ascent of the Mur de Huy along with Niewiadoma, Borghini and Ashleigh Moolman (AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step). With no riders represented, it was up to SD Worx to chase, and though they did receive help from teams like Trek-Seagrefo, it was clear that domestiques like Marlen Reusser, Niamh Fisher-Black and Mischa Bredewold had to use up a lot of energy bringing such a strong group back. Once the catch was made 32km from the finish, Trek-Segafredo’s Amanda Spratt then accelerated, asking more of the SD Worx teammates, which probably explains why there were so few after Spratt was caught and the action kicked off on Côte de Cherave.
Despite Vollering's isolation, none of the other teams managed to capitalise. Surprisingly, there were no attacks after the Côte de Cherave, even when Vollering stopped pushing and there was a lull in the pace. Everyone instead looked to the Dutchwoman to lead the group as the Mur de Huy approached, presumably worried about committing too early given the likelihood of them blowing up on the steep gradients of the final climb. But to have any chance of defeating Vollering, this was the time to go, and with other teams in the position to fire one rider up the road and have the other sit on wheels, there was an opportunity to work her over before the Mur.
Still, Vollering had such strong legs that it's hard to think of many scenarios in which she would not have won today. If she can carry this form through to the end of the week, a repeat of her former teammate and current DS Anna van der Breggen’s Ardennes treble of 2017 may be on the cards.
*Cover image by James Startt