The Netherlands is, famously, flat. Ask a selection of randomly-chosen British people to tell you one thing about the country and it’s the fact you’ll hear more than any other. A first visit to Valkenburg can therefore be surprising – it’s a hilly region and some of the roads climbing those hills are very steep indeed, making the Boels Rental Hills Classic a challenging race that is best suited to climbers such as last year’s winner Ashleigh Moolman.
The first 35km of the parcours, which changes every year, are rolling; however, “rolling” is a relative term and in this race refers to terrain that in many other events would be considered challenging – several riders were already showing signs of suffering before arriving at Eyserbosweg some 40km into the parcours, so it was no surprise that the gradient (which reaches 17%) at one point split the bunch into several smaller groups. After around 68km and six climbs, Emma Johansson (Orica-AIS), Amy Pieters (Giant-Shimano), Ellen van Dijk and Katarzyna Pawlowska (both Boels-Dolmans) and Sabrina Stultiens and Roxane Knetemann (both Rabo-Liv) came together to form a lead group: an interesting situation because, while Johansson is a phenomenally strong athlete on the climbs and in a sprint she lacked team support in the break and would have to work hard to match the Boels-Dolmans and Rabo-Liv duos.
For the time being, though, there was another 60km still to be raced and with eight climbs still lying in wait – including two ascents of the dreaded Camerig which, despite not being the steepest hill in the race, is rated by COTACOL as the toughest climb in the Netherlands- the leaders needed to work together. They did so cohesively and productively, soon finding an advantage of four minutes which proved too much for Pawlowska and Stultiens, who fell back. Knetemann remained on board for longer, but eventually she too was unable to match the three strongest riders who went into the final uphill sprint on Geulhemmerweg together. On a flat road, Van Dijk and Pieters are more than capable of staying with Johansson, but with the maximum gradient leading to the line reaching 9% the Swedish rider was able to show why she’s currently ranked number one in the world: she finished 3″ ahead of Van Dijk and 5″ ahead of Pieters. Knetemann came in 44″ later, Pawlowska and Stultiens at +3’03” and the next big group led by Anna van der Breggen (Rabo-Liv) at 5’07”.
Just two British riders contested the race – Tamina Oliver (WV Zeeuws Vlaanderen) and Anne Ewing (WV Breda-Manieu.nl). Oliver was 48th, finishing 12’48” after Johansson while Ewing was 55th at +12’56.
1 Emma JOHANSSON (Orica-AIS) 3h36’38”
2 Ellen VAN DIJK (Boels-Dolmans) +03″
3 Amy PIETERS (Giant-Shimano) +05″
4 Roxane KNETEMANN (Rabo-Liv) +44″
5 Katarzyna PAWLOWSKA (Boels-Dolmans) +3’03”
6 Sabrina STULTIENS (Rabo-Liv) ST
7 Anna VAN DER BREGGEN (Rabo-Liv) +5’07”
8 Jessie DAAMS (Boels-Dolmans) ST
9 Sofie DE VUYST (Futurumshop.nl-Zannata) ST
10 Ashleigh MOOLMAN-PASIO (Hitec Products) ST