Annemiek van Vleuten won the Tour of Flanders for the second time with a signature attack.
The European champion launched her move on the Paterberg, the race’s final climb some 13km from the finish, and held off a group of seven chasers.
German champion Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT) won the sprint for second place, with Grace Brown (BikeExchange) in third.
Brown had attacked a group of eight women which had been led by Anna van der Breggen on the Oude Kwaremont, and was joined by Van Vleuten on the run into the Paterberg. The pair were caught immediately before the 90-degree turn onto the Paterberg and it was here the Dutch rider went.
The chasing group of seven contained two riders from SDWorx and initially cooperation was not good, allowing Van Vleuten to grow her lead. However, the victory as only certain inside the final two kilometres.
The win is the first WorldTour win for Movistar’s women’s team since their creation in 2018 and is exactly what the Spanish squad signed her to do. She also becomes only the third woman to win the race twice in its 18 editions, coming 10 years after her last victory, taken on a different course, finishing in Meerbeke.
How it happened
As it has done since 2012, the 18th edition of the women’s Tour of Flanders started and finished in Oudenaarde, the peloton riding 152.4km in between. While the race was some six kilometres short the longest edition, it was nearly 60km longer than the first race won by Zulfiya Zabirova in 2004.
The 2021 race contained 13 of the short sharp climbs the Flemish Ardennes is known for, more than any others year, and finished with the regular Oude Kwaremont/Paterberg double. The top of that final climb came some 13.2km from the famous finish line across a wide and otherwise anonymous road immediately west of Oudenaarde.
With the late start designed, and already proven, to improve television viewing figures, 143 women were allowed a lie in before rolling out of town at 1pm. Of the 24 teams Trek-Segafredo were the only squad to start the day with fewer than the permitted six riders, the US outfit fielding only five.
After 10km two riders escaped the bunch, former German time trial champion Mieke Kröger (Coop-Hitec Products) and Fien van Eynde (Doltcini van Eyck) gradually building a lead of 30 seconds on a seething bunch.
However, the bunch were never quite happy, and on the approach to Lippenhovestraat the speed upped and the leading duo were caught, only for Femke Markus (Parkhotel-Valkenburg) to get away after Paddestraat.
The Dutch woman was then joined by Rozanne Slik (Bingoal Casino-Chevalmire) Amber Aernouts (Doltcini van Eyck), Inga Čečuliene (AromItalia Basso Bikes Vaiano) and Emilie Moberg (Drops Le Col), the five riders maintaining a lead of 35 seconds over the first climb, the Kattenberg.
But as the race reached Holleweg, the third cobbled section, the gap came down and over the Edlare they were caught, the bunch staying together for the next 40km.
Only on the Berg Ten Houte when Liv Racing’s Canadian Alison Jackson hit the front did the race really stretch, Movistar keeping the pace high over the top and causing the peloton to split.
It split again when, inside 45km to go, European champion Annemiek van Vleuten attacked the Kanarieberg, leading a group of only 15 women onto the descent, and though that group swelled, Trek-Segafredo’s Audrey Cordon-Ragot attacked.
The French champion led by 15 seconds as she reached the top of the Taaienberg, what was left of the peloton apparently happy to allow her some freedom as that took a feed.
Despite a couple of speculative probes off the front of that chasing group, Cordon-Ragot, a former national time trial champion, was able to stretch her advantage to 50 seconds as she began the Kruisberg, with only 29km remaining.
On the smooth tarmac of Hotond a flurry of attacks caused the gap to come down, Soraya Paladin (Liv Racing) closing in, while the bunch monitored within touching distance ahead of the Oude Kwaremont.
Cordon-Ragot was caught at the bottom of the climb, while one of the pre-race favourites, Belgian champion Lotte Kopecky was put out of the race after suffering a mechanical, as ahead of her the race shattered.
Only eight women emerged from the top of the climb, and from that Grace Brown (BikeExchange) attacked and was joined by Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar), and while they were caught before the Paterberg, Van Vleuten went again on the steepest section.
Tour of Flanders Elite Women, Oudenaarde – Oudenaarde (152.4km)
1. Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned) Movistar
2. Grace Brown (Aus) BikeExchange
3. Lisa Brennauer (Ger) Ceratizit-WNT
4. Elisa Longo Borghini (Ita) Trek-Segafredo
5. Demi Vollering (Ned) SDWorx
6. Marta Cavalli (Ita) FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope
7. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Den) FDJ-Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope
8. Anna van der Breggen (Ned) SDWorx
9. Eugenia Bujak (Sui) Alé-BTC Ljubljana
10. Kristen Faulkner (USA) Tibco-SVB