Yesterday, I wrote about and ranked the men who made this Springs Classics season so memorable, despite not adding that precious victory to their palmares. Today it’s the turn of the women, and it’s been a decidedly difficult task to analyse this for complex reasons that I will try to unpick before I unveil my top picks for the heroes of the classics who didn’t win a race.
It's complicated, OK?
In the men’s field a very clear hierarchy has presented itself over the past couple of seasons, but this year in particular it's been almost a given that a small set of riders will dominate, while the rest fight for podium spots. Subsequently, working out of the ‘best of the rest’ was kind of, sort of, straightforward.
It's not quite the same in the WWT. Whilst team dominance is absolutely playing a role in the women’s peloton, as has been evident from the raft of wins for Team SD Worx so far this season, there have also been some outlying results which have skewed the statistics, along with some top riders arguably under-performing to the point where it feels disingenuous to award them ‘unsung hero’ status when they might view their classics campaign as a disappointment.
With a smaller field, and smaller teams, the women can less afford to specialise than the men, and the result is a broad collection of ‘best of the rest’ riders, many of whom have good results both on the cobbles and the hills of the Ardennes, and resulting in a much trickier process to separate them out.
SD Worx won all but four of the one-day races ranked Pro level and above, and of the four they did not win, all were won by riders you could confidently call ‘underdogs’ (more on that later). So despite the dominance of SD Worx, the rest of the women’s peloton can truly believe that there are chances for them to win, and that not everything will always go the way of Vollering, Kopecky and co. So where does this leave everyone else in the grand scheme?
The top 10 riders who didn’t win a Spring Classic…
It’s an arbitrary number, but it does represent how broad the spread of competitive women currently is – and this despite the staggering fact that SD Worx occupied 43% of all possible podium places this Spring, proving their strength in depth is quite frankly ridiculous.
I’ve factored in prestige of race, expectation, team support and consistency in my super-mega-mathematically rigorous system to determine the order here, please take it with a pinch of salt.
1.Liane Lippert (Movistar)
BEST RESULTS: La Flèche Wallonne Femmes (2nd); De Brabantse Pijl (3rd); Strade Bianche (7th); Dwars Door Vlaanderen, Liège–Bastogne–Liège Femmes (8th)
There’s no doubt that one woman rises above the rest when it comes to heroes of the classics season without a win. The German champion has always promised much but is in the form of her life in 2023, a worthy successor to the outgoing Annemiek van Vleuten. While these are impossibly huge shoes to fill, Lippert has proven her consistency, strength and willingness to attack at every race she has ridden this spring.
For her troubles, she’s achieved two podium places and a further three top 10 spots, and has just generally been at the pointy end of everything, attacking, threatening, and generally exceeding expectation, proving herself a true contender and force to be reckoned with. Wins are coming her way, and sooner rather than later.
2. Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo)
BEST RESULTS: Liège–Bastogne–Liège Femmes (2nd); Tour of Flanders (3rd); Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (10th)
I agonised over this decision as on paper, ELB’s results are arguably stronger than Lippert’s: podium places at two Monuments despite the Italian suffering from covid earlier in the season.
Without this, she may have had something to say about the SD Worx dominance, and been able to challenge more fiercely, but it’s impossible to know. It’s still a strong output from the winner of the UAE Tour, who will have ambitions to challenge at the Grand Tours with her outrageously strong Trek team. Overall, Lippert had the edge for me as she exceeded expectation where ELB, perhaps, fell somewhat short of it.
3. Elisa Balsamo (Trek-Segafredo)
BEST RESULTS: Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Brugge-De Panne (2nd); Ronde van Drenthe (4th)
Speaking of the insanely strong Trek team, it’s telling, if not somewhat ironic, that they occupy two of the top three spots in this list, without topping it, given their few wins during this classics season. They’ve performed extremely well as a unit and both of Balsamo’s second places have come from winning the sprint among a chasing bunch, with breakaway winners ahead of her, so could be viewed as victories of sorts (particularly Trofeo Alfredo Binda, as her team mate Van Anrooij was the victor).
To have two Italian women called Elisa who ride for Trek is unusual in itself – neither of them picking up a win in a one-day race so far this Spring is particularly surprising and they both may view their classics campaign as less than they had hoped for. It doesn’t change the fact however that they have both achieved strong results.
4. Marta Bastianelli (UAE Team ADQ)
BEST RESULTS: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Nokere Koerse (3rd); Gent Wevelgem (6th)
Although Bastianelli did win a one-day race this Spring, (Le Samyn des Dames), as I’ve only included Pro races and above technically she counts in the ‘best of the rest’ list. With two podium places, the veteran Italian fared well on the cobbles, one of her favoured surfaces, and can chalk Spring 2023 up as an overall success.
5. Megan Jastrab (Team DSM)
BEST RESULTS: Gent Wevelgem (2nd); Brugge-De Panne (4th)
Now we’re talking – Jastrab is representative of the riders I originally planned for this article to be about – riders who you don’t ordinarily expect to see troubling the top end of the results sheet, but who perform outstanding feats to exceed expectation and really bring races to life.
Jastrab had two stand-out results from this Spring, which came in quick succession. Her strong riding for team mate Pfeiffer Georgi in the tough conditions at Brugge-de Panne resulted in a team win and 4th place for her (and the infectious joy on her face as she exclaimed post-race ‘I made an echelon!’ was so wonderful to see). A few days later she really was the ‘best of the rest’ at Gent Wevelgem, winning from a reduced bunch to take second place behind a rampant Marlen Reusser.
6. Chiara Consonni (UAE Team ADQ)
BEST RESULTS: Dwars Door Vlaanderen (2nd); Brugge-de Panne, Paris-Roubaix Femmes (9th)
The Italian sprinter achieved a podium spot in the Belgian classics but perhaps her most significant result is achieving a top 10 at Paris-Roubaix, one of the few from the non-breakaway bunch to do so.
7. Vittoria Guazzini (FDJ-SUEZ)
BEST RESULTS: Trofeo Alfredo Binda (3rd); Dwars Door Vlaanderen (4th); Ronde van Drenthe (7th)
One podium and two more top 10s for the young Italian sprinter, who was the best performer on paper for her team, who have struggled to make their presence felt this classics season.
8. Gaia Realini (Trek-Segafredo)
BEST RESULTS: La Flèche Wallonne Femmes (3rd); Liège–Bastogne–Liège Femmes (7th)
Having three entries on this list really epitomises the close-but-no-cigar nature of Trek-Segafredo's Spring campaign. In Realini though, is the first true surprise entry from the team – while the Elisas are both expected to be out there winning, newest acquisition Realini is the new kid on the block who has hugely impressed with her strength and determination so far this season.
Her gritty performance on the Mur de Huy allowed her to show her mettle and she followed it up with an impressive result at LBL a few days later to secure her own spot in this top ten.
9. Maike van der Duin (Canyon//SRAM)
BEST RESULTS: Gent Wevelgem (3rd); Brugge-de Panne (7th)
The 21-year-old Dutch rider has been the top performer from her team at the classics, scoring a valuable podium spot and a top 10. She wore the WWT's best young rider jersey for some time to reflect her consistent performances.
10. Marianne Vos (Team Jumbo-Visma)
BEST RESULTS: Dwars Door Vlaanderen (3rd); Paris-Roubaix Femmes (10th)
Classics specialist Vos might have hoped to take more from her Spring but instead forced down the path to recovery, following pelvic surgery. Starting her season relatively late as a result, Vos achieved a podium spot at Dwars Door but it was her herculean ride at Paris-Roubaix which made her a hero for me this season. She fought back several times after a relatively early mechanical and was able to make it into the stadium to sneak into the top 10 despite the breakaway mopping up all of the top placements. A epic ride for the Dutch legend and a matching 10th spot for her on this list.
Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (FDJ-SUEZ) – the Dane is another rider who will be targeting the Grand Tours this summer, but a podium place at Strade Bianche was the highlight of her spring season
Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon//SRAM) – so often a rider who comes close but is unable to convert her strength into success, the Polish rider has a consistent Spring, with a 5th place at the Tour of Flanders the highlight, along with 6th at Strade Bianche and 4th at Amstel Gold Race.
Annemiek van Vleuten (Movistar) – it seems ludicrous that the legend herself hasn’t even made the top ten, but without a podium to her name let alone a win, Van Vleuten’s 4th place at Strade Bianche must feel a long time ago now. With a 6th and 7th at her favoured races in the Ardennes, AvV will be looking forward to the summer when she gets to properly stretch her climbing legs, for the last time in her professional career. Write her off at your peril.
Elise Chabbey (Canyon//SRAM) – while she may not have any wins or podiums to show for it, Chabbey has often been an animator this Spring, always willing to try an attack on a climb and work to thin out the bunch in service of her leader Niewiadoma. Like her, Chabbey has a consistent set of results, the highlight a 4th place at Brabantse Pijl, two further top 10s and a handful of top 20s.
Soraya Paladin (Canyon//SRAM) – with three riders in the ‘best of the rest… of the rest’, the Canyon//SRAM team will yet again be back at the drawing board trying to see how they can make a breakthrough to higher echelons of results. Paladin’s gutsy attack at Amstel saw her come away with a well earned 5th place, a position she also achieved at Trofeo Alfredo Binda. Two further top 10s round out a consistent classics campaign for the Italian.
Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (AG Insurance Soudal QuickStep) – the veteran rides her final season and she performed with her usual consistency at La Flèche Wallonne Femmes, arriving 6th for her tenth top 10 at the race – a truly impressive record. With an 8th place at Amstel and 10th at Dwars Door Vlaanderen, it’s been a solid Spring for the South African, who will be looking forward to the longer climbs of the summer.
Riejanne Markus (Team Jumbo-Visma) – a strong performer over anything with a bit of climbing involved, Markus started strongly with 8th place at Strade and was hard done by coming 14th at Amstel after a really strong ride. Her 4th place at Liège–Bastogne–Liège Femmes capped a memorable classics season for the Dutch rider.
Underdog Winners – with four wins between them, it was the underdogs who were the heroes of the Spring, for me. Defying SD Worx' dominance, four women’s names stand out as you cast your eye down the list of winners, and they are:
Shirin van Anrooij (Trofeo Alfredo Binda) – gritty solo breakaway combined with superb teamwork to hold off the chasing pack; Pfeiffer Georgi (Brugge-de Panne) – late solo break; Alison Jackson (Paris-Roubaix) – driver of a strong breakaway sealed the deal in the velodrome; and Silvia Persico (De Brabantse Pijl) – out-sprinted Demi Vollering.
Though this piece was originally meant to celebrate those who didn’t win, the nature of this classics season for the women’s peloton has meant that the real celebration lays not only in admiring the sheer athletic prowess of the likes of Lotte Kopecky, Demi Vollering and Lorena Wiebes, but also in revelling when the unexpected occurs. It gives hope to the collective that the outcomes are not pre-destined, and to the fans who can look forward to closely matched battles, if not all the time, at least some of the time. So to these winners, I raise a glass - thanks for giving us the chance to dream.