Team WNT decided to start its season in Belgium with a challenging two-week block of racing that saw it take on the Pajot Hills Classic before moving onto the GP de Dottingnes, part of the highly prestigious Lotto cup, then a quick trip to the Netherlands for the Energiewhact tour, a legendary hard early season five-day stage race.
This challenging and difficult start to the season was planned to give the girls some very hard early season racing to bring their form on, if they could get through this period of racing it would potentially set them up for the season. It was also an opportunity for the whole team to broaden their horizons and compete on the continent. Then reality set in. To say the Pajot Hills Classic was a massive shock to the system would be a big understatement! Some of the biggest teams in the world were present along with the biggest names in women's cycling, including Marianne Vos, who had decided to make this her first race of the season. Compared to UK races the field sizes are huge, with over 180 riders lining up for most of these UCI races. This was also Team WNT’s first taste of Belgian cobbles, bread loaf sized cobbles with gaps between them.
“We learnt lots of lessons in this first race of the year and it wasn't long before they had chance to put those lessons in to practice when a few days later they lined up at GP de Dottingnes, this still had cobbles, but not quite as severe as Pajot, both Keira and Natalie put in great rides to finish in the front finishing group with Keira sprinting for a top 40 finish, no mean feat in this company. It was then on to Energiewhact with a bit more confidence in our abilities,” says Marcus Nainby, Team Manager.
Stage One was a team time trial and didn't go too badly, only losing a few seconds on the top teams. Then came Stage Two, very flat roads with strong crosswinds, it was all out war within the first 10km, with echelons forming, this was a day for big, strong riders with lots of crosswind experience. Team WNT suffered badly, with two crashes and a badly timed puncture putting three of our riders outside the time limit and a fourth in an ambulance! Hannah crashed pretty hard, luckily she's was ok with some road rash but no broken bones. This meant that for Stage Three Team WNT was left with just Natalie and Corinne. Thankfully, it was a much more straightforward stage without the high winds of the day before. Or so it seemed. Another disaster befell Team WNT when a small crash in the bunch brought Corinne down and another rider landed on top of her, Being the fighter that she is, she was straight back on her feet but couldn't get back on her bike, with later X-Rays revealing a crack in her pelvis. Extremely unlucky for Corinne and that left Natalie to battle on alone for Team WNT, finishing 35th in the individual time trial and 50th overall out of the 93 finishers (and 187 starters!).
It was then back home for the British National Series round, the tour of the reservoir in Northumberland. “Early April in Northumberland is maybe not the best location for a bike race, we awoke to snow on the morning of the first stage! This delayed the start for an hour to allow the remaining snow on the course to melt. Time Team WNT put to good use warming up on the turbo trainers,” says Marcus. No sooner had the race started, and left the neutral zone, Natalie went on the attack, soon to be joined by another three riders including Lydia. This move was soon chased down by the other teams who recognised the danger. As the race reached its finale Natalie tried to go again, but as she made her move another rider switched across her knocking her off her bike, Hannah gave Natalie her bike to finish that stage on and try not to lose too much time. After the finish Natalie went straight to the medical tent, where the medics passed her fit for day two as she hadn't suffered any concussion, but had chipped two teeth and got herself some impressive road rash.
A cold but sunny start to Stage two saw Team WNT switch strategy and ride for Natalie to try to get her the stage win. The team made the first half of the race as hard as possible by firing riders up the road, forcing the other teams to chase, using up Sam, Hannah and Jo early on whist keeping Natalie sheltered and looked after by Keira, Lydia and Becca, who would try to set her up for the finale. The plan worked well with Hannah and Jo getting away and building up a good lead before Jo went on alone for pretty much 2.5 out of 5 laps! She gained a maximum of three minutes, before the other big teams decided to chase her down, using up valuable energy in the process. Once caught the remaining team riders worked hard to keep it together until the final lap, putting Natalie a group of 12 riders that had built up a lead of over three minutes over the main bunch. The race finished up a final climb where Natalie slightly miss timed her effort, leaving it a little late and finishing 8th. Still a good, solid result on a very hard circuit. “While we didn’t take the win it was fantastic to be told afterwards that Team WNT had made the race due to its efforts and it was impressive to see such good teamwork.”
There is no rest in cycling, though, and it was straight back over to Belgium the following weekend for the next round of the Lotto cup, the Dwars Door de Westhoek. Once again the weather played a part in making it a difficult race with hailstones to rain to bright sunshine throughout! As a result the race split to pieces when Canyon/SRAM and Rabobank drove the pace through a tough crosswind section. Team WNT kept three riders in the main peloton, with Keira once again sprinting to a top 50 position (there were once again over 180 starters!).
“We all felt big improvements had been made with the racing at this level, it really is a steep learning curve going from racing in the UK to racing at this UCI level, with huge fields, big budget teams and the pure pace that the races run at.”
Topping all of this was the honour of being invited to participate in the Tour of Yorkshire, the women's race this year was a one day event (compared to the men's race being over three days) but unlike last year's criterium the womens’ stage was to replicate the middle stage of the men's race from Otley to Doncaster in full! A full 137 km stage! Plus organisers ASO, the organisers of the Tour de France, had put up a very impressive prize fund with £15000 for winning. Team WNT put out a strong team of Hannah, Becca, Lydia, Jo and Natalie, plus as we had a few injured riders we decided to give a guest ride to Alice Cobb a young talented racer from Matrix cycling team.
Although a much smaller entry than Belgium with 100 riders competing we knew road position would still be extremely important, if splits happen and you're too far back then you have very little chance of staying in contact with the leaders, especially given the strength of the field with a few big international teams taking part, including Wiggle-High5, LIV-Planteur and Hi-Tech, plus riding for the Great Britain national team would be current road race world champion Lizzie Armistead. Looking at the road book for the event the parcours didn't look too difficult with two queen of the mountains points early on then a third in the latter stages, these all proved to be steeper than expected!
As the race rolled out of Otley town centre at 8.15 am on Saturday morning the crowds lining the roads were unbelievable, this continued for pretty much the whole 137km, it was like racing through a wall of noise with spectators shouting encouragement all the way. The race proved to be fast, the first hour was run off at over 43 kph! We lost a few riders over the second QOM climb as it was quite narrow and steeper than expected, Natalie and Alice both stayed near the front of the race and kept a good position, the rest had a long chase to get back in, which they did. As it approached the last quarter of the race Becca, Lydia and Jo found themselves distanced again as the speed of the bunch increased to chase down a dangerous move going off the front, that was the last time they would see the main bunch. At the front Alice managed to get herself in the next attack, although it was short lived as the world champion herself brought it back! With just under 20km to go more disaster as Natalie was involved in a crash, the team quickly checked her bike over and got her rolling again, she managed to get back to the convoy of team cars but ran out of time to get to the race as it entered Doncaster. In the end it came down to a bunch sprint with Alice hanging on for 29th and Natalie managing a top 50 with 48th.
“This has been a very hard start to the year with a very tough first six weeks of racing, but the team spirit is really strong and we are building to some great results. Our next race sees the team back in Belgium for the Trofee Maarten Wynants on the 8th May and then it is on to the Lincoln Grand Prix the weekend after,” says Marcus.
More information on WNT’s involvement with Team WNT/Burman Racing and Team WNT Elite Ladies cycling can be found at https://www.team-wnt.com/uk.html