“I prefer smart riders to strong riders. We want not just legs, but brains.”
Ronny Lauke has built something special at CANYON//SRAM Racing. In a sport brimming with egos, the team’s director has managed to assemble a blend of selfless racers each willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the team. On the start line for the first European race of the season – the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – stands a self-assured Australian, a spontaneous Italian, a whip-smart American, a charming Belarussian and two kind Germans. Today they’ll pull for the in-form Australian, Tiffany Cromwell, but she’ll no doubt be riding in the others’ services before long. It’s an ‘all for one, and one for all’ mentality that makes for good results and happy ‘teamies’, as the girls call one another.
Early on Saturday morning, Lauke (below, right) eases a team car out of Ghent’s labyrinthine road network and into the car park of the Eddy Merckx velodrome. A directeur sportif of women’s teams since 2007, the German is experienced enough to be laid back about these things and arrives later than most. The car park is packed but some sweet-talking of a nervous teenage marshall secures the team a spot out of the way of everyone else’s stress.
Mechanics Jochen and Sebastian get to work building up the bikes as Lauke strolls into the team manager’s meeting inside the velodrome. He’s slightly late but it’s no matter, he’s been here many times before. Randomly drawn position number 31 out of 33 for the team car convoy following the race, he shrugs, laughing: “I won’t be seeing much of the action today!”
The team camper parks up an hour before race time. It’s a beautiful, crisp morning flirting with minus degrees Celsius and sprinter Barbara Guarischi peeks her head out. A hot-blooded Italian, she’s unsurprisingly not a fan of the cold and is instantly recognisable for her fully covered face. The great German sprinter Erik Zabel, now working with Canyon, comes over for a word of encouragement. Guarischi is excited by the interest of the six-time Tour de France green jersey winner, but she’s more than earning his attention with her own results, which include a stage of the women’s Giro last year.
German champion Trixi Worrack and Tiffany Cromwell come out for the team presentation. The Australian has some teething problems with her new bike computer, but she couldn’t be more relaxed: “It’s asking me what level cyclist I am!” she says to Lauke. “What am I Ronny – amateur, intermediate, or elite?!” After the race the computer will be so flummoxed by her effort that it says she’ll need 46 hours of rest before exerting herself again. Hard luck, the team race again tomorrow.
Half way through the 123.8km route and Alexis Ryan leads her captain Cromwell up the fearsome Paterberg cobbled climb. Today is the 21-year-old American’s first race for CANYON//SRAM, having joined from US team UHC. “A European team is where I’ve always wanted to end up, because this is where the best racing is, the hardest racing,” she says.
Ryan is mature in both mind and strength, and Lauke is well aware of her potential: “We don’t know what type of rider she’ll become,” he says. “She’s talented though, that’s clear.” Ryan works at the front of the pack for the whole day and still finishes 14th. Why be defined when you’re this good already?
An honorary ‘Belgie’, Tiffany Cromwell was born to race on these rutted farm roads. In five previous outings at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, she has never placed worse than 8th, winning it once in 2013. A master of positioning in the bunch and with a punchy low-profile sprint, she makes it look easy.
At the other end of the field, however, the younger and the weaker struggle to keep up. With little U23 or lower level racing for women, many up-and-comers find this leap up at Omloop too much. Flanders’ fields are a harsh battleground for the uninitiated.
By holding the race on the same day as the men’s, the women profit from more fans roaming the countryside to cheer them on, as well as seamless rolling road closures befitting a region that has held bike races since before even the most grizzled and grey-haired of the road marshalls were born.
Despite the large crowds, live TV coverage isn’t offered for the women, and the pundits on Belgian television spend a full hour analysing the upcoming men’s race when they could have been showing the girls go full gas.
Briton Lizzie Armitstead disproves the ‘curse’ of the rainbow jersey by finishing first on her debut in the rainbow stripes. “And I was number 13 today too,” she says. CANYON//SRAM take a good result with Tiffany Cromwell sprinting for third from a group of twenty chasers.
As ‘Tiff’ is whisked away for the presentation, Lisa Brennauer, Alexis Ryan, Trixi Worrack and Alena Amiasiliuk congratulate one another on a job well done with a group hug. A quick assessment of the day’s events take place before they head to the warmth of the camper.
With all the panache in the world, and a Rapha-designed kit to match, Cromwell sprays the champers with gusto. “Getting my practice in early by standing next to Lizzie Armitstead’s side for later this year. #Bridesmaid”, she later writes on Instagram, referring to Armitstead’s upcoming nuptials with Team Sky’s Phil Deignan.
She is happy with her own result; a podium is never to be sniffed at: “The team was always there around me. It was their support and confidence that helped me get through the early part of the race. It’s a great start to our Europe races – this is just the beginning.”