The pressure is on Team SD Worx-Protime – Will they be able to balance a team of superstars at Gent-Wevelgem?

While SD Worx has continued their winning ways, other teams are getting to grips with how to beat them. Will they be able to prove they're still the top team at Gent-Wevelgem, or could they struggle to balance a line-up full of potential winners?

It’s no surprise that Team SD Worx-Protime have once again showed their brilliance in the 2024 season’s opening races, continuing on from their domination last year which saw the Dutch squad total a staggering 62 wins. It’s only approaching late March and they’ve already bagged 11 victories with world champion Lotte Kopecky securing four of those wins and sprinting powerhouse Lorena Wiebes clinching another four. The likes of Marlen Reusser and Niamh Fisher-Black scooped up the others in February’s four-day race in Valencia. 

However, the major one-day races so far haven't all been smooth sailing for SD Worx. Marianne Vos (Visma-Lease a Bike) narrowly edged out Kopecky at the finish line of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, while Elisa Balsamo upheld Lidl-Trek's reign at Trofeo Alfredo Binda, relegating Kopecky to second place. This demonstrates that other teams are beginning to decipher the tactics needed to pierce SD Worx's armour, snatching first-place podiums away from them.

As the Women's WorldTour returns to Belgium ahead of one of the biggest Classics races, the Tour of Flanders, riders will aim to make a statement at Classic Brugge-De Panne (won by Elisa Balsamo) and Gent-Wevelgem this week before heading to De Ronde. SD Worx, too, will aim to assert their supremacy once again, and are heading into their next race with a lineup of riders poised for glory at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday March 24.

Gent-Wevelgem is an unpredictable race. Its terrain favours those with a fast finish due to the flat stretch towards the line, however, past editions have witnessed opportunistic attackers capitalising on the punchy cobbled climbs in the latter half of the 171.2km-long race, seizing victory with a solo finish. Marlen Reusser (SD Worx) executed this strategy last year, breaking away with 40km remaining and finishing 2-43 ahead of second-placed Megan Jastrab (Team dsm-fermenich PostNL). Prior to Reusser's victory, only Chantal Blaak (now van den Broek-Blaak) in 2016 and Lizzie Armitstead (now Deignan) in the inaugural 2012 edition secured solo wins, with all other editions culminating in sprint finishes.

With this race being known as a “sprinter’s Classics” it seems only likely that SD Worx will opt for the team to ride in support of Lorena Wiebes, undoubtedly the fastest rider in the women’s peloton. Last year, Wiebes crashed 7km from the finish and has never had much success in this race, so she’ll be keen to finally turn her fate around on the roads in Belgium, especially as she’ll be up against other sprinters such as Charlotte Kool (Team dsm-fermenich PostNL), Elisa Balsamo (Lidl-Trek), and Chiara Consonni (UAE Team ADQ). However, Wiebes was involved in a crash at Nokere Koerse last week and the team announced that she would not be racing in Classic Brugge-De Panne due to injuries she sustained from the incident. 

Lorena Wiebes won Miron Ronde van Drenthe for the fourth time this year (Image by Getty Images)

Despite the likelihood of SD Worx supporting Wiebes for a sprint finish, her recent crash at Nokere Koerse and subsequent withdrawal from Classic Brugge-De Panne could significantly impact the team's strategy for Gent-Wevelgem. This turn of events leaves room for speculation regarding who will take on the leadership role for SD Worx in the upcoming race. Without their star sprinter at full strength, the team may need to adapt their tactics and consider alternative riders capable of capitalising on the challenging terrain or seizing opportunities for breakaways, similar to Marlen Reusser's successful solo effort in the previous edition, or a sprint from a select group of riders. 

Lotte Kopecky has proven she can win from a reduced bunch sprint and therefore, would most likely be the rider SD Worx would choose to go for the victory if Wiebes isn’t up for the challenge. The Belgian rider is strong uphill and might be able to shake some of the riders off on the final climbs, leaving her sprinting against a select few riders in the hopes of crossing the finish line first. Alternatively, SD Worx may opt for a different tactic, perhaps launching attacks on the race's earlier climbs to gain an advantage, especially with Balsamo, who has already outpaced Kopecky in a sprint this season, monitoring her moves.

Despite Gent-Wevelgem being on home turf for the Belgian rider, Lotte Kopecky has yet to claim victory in this race. She may have had eight appearances at the start line and has managed to crack the top-10 four times, but the elusive victory has remained out of reach. While Gent-Wevelgem may not carry the same prestige as other Classics races, a win would undoubtedly be a significant achievement for Kopecky. After all, a victory is a victory, regardless of the race's stature. And with Wiebes potentially also not up to full strength, could this make Kopecky more keen to take the win? 

But that is not the only option for SD Worx. Like last year’s unscripted Gent-Wevelgem win with Reusser, SD Worx could opt for European Champion Mischa Bredewold to make a long-range attack. The European champion has made a name for herself with long, daring attacks and could look to imitate Reusser’s winning blueprint from last year’s race. Her best result this year has been second place at Omloop van het Hageland behind Kristen Faulkner, who won with an immense 50km solo breakaway.

Mischa Bredewold during this year's Strade Bianche (Image by Getty Images)

Whoever SD Worx selects to lead, they'll receive support from Barbara Guarischi, Elena Cecchini, and Femke Gerritse. Yet, they're aware that all eyes are on them, with the rest of the peloton ready to counter any move they make. While SD Worx will go into this race as a clear favourite with Wiebes and Kopecky on their start list, it’s not a foregone conclusion that they will win, especially given the race’s unpredictable nature. 

They do boast strength in depth and have multiple options available to them as the race situation changes, but this could also be their downfall, as the saying goes, “too many cooks can spoil the broth”. We’ve seen tensions before with SD Worx, most notably, at last year’s Strade Bianche when Kopecky and Demi Vollering fought for victory. It was evident that while cycling is a team sport, some riders in SD Worx are willing to pit themselves against their own teammates for their own glory. 

This internal competition within SD Worx could add an extra layer of complexity to their strategy at Gent-Wevelgem. While having multiple strong riders provides flexibility, it also raises questions about team cohesion and willingness to sacrifice personal ambitions for the greater good of the team. As they navigate the challenges of the race, SD Worx will need to ensure clear communication and decision making to maximise their chances of success at Gent-Wevelgem. Otherwise, their formidable strength in depth could indeed become a liability, rather than an asset in their pursuit of victory.

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