At the start of 2017 Chantal Blaak was only after one thing. Having taken home a fistful of classics and the Boels Rentals Ladies Tour in 2016, she said to herself “I have won big races already in my career, but I’ve never had [the opportunity] to wear a jersey.”
At that point, rather than the rainbow stripes, it was the Netherlands national road title in her sights. Considering the current depth of talent within the Dutch camp, which counted both previous Olympic road race champions in its ranks, it could be easily be argued that this was as grand an ambition as the world crown. Still, Blaak believed she could do it.
“I had a look at the nationals course and I saw that it was possible and [decided] that I really wanted to focus on that race.”
Her preparation paid off. A member of a small group that led for most of the race, Blaak broke free with two kilometres to go, and ended up winning comfortably.
Speaking from her home near Rotterdam, shortly after returning from a month-long holiday to Bali, Blaak says the nationals victory gave her reason to believe she could win the world title “one day”. At that point she had no designs on achieving both in the same year.
For despite being the national champion, it’s no sleight to say that Chantal Blaak was not one of the biggest orange names heading to Bergen.
Since winning the Olympic road race, her Boels-Dolmans team-mate Anna van der Breggen dominated the 2017 Ardennes classics, before going on to win both the Giro Rosa and Tour of California. Annemiek van Vleuten had towered over the competition at the new and experimental version of La Course, the most watched race on the women’s calendar. That’s before we even mention the most decorated Dutchwoman of them all, Marianne Vos.
Such a talented team meant the Dutch were expected to deliver – even we at Rouleur stuck our necks out and said it was theirs to lose – but the benefit of having so many riders who could perform was that, just like with a bed of nails, that pressure was diffused.
Knowing all eyes would be on them, the most important thing was for the team to work as one, to keep as many cards in play for as long as possible. With the course containing barely a kilometre of flat the racing was going to be hard no matter what happened, so there was no need to make it more so.
The team agreed they would not push the pace until at least halfway. After that the rule was “you can only ride [attack] when you really believe you can win”.
While “not one of the names”, Blaak nevertheless viewed herself as “a dangerous outsider”. “It was hard to say if I had the feeling I could win,” she says, “I only had the feeling that I felt really strong that day.”
Despite being caught up in a crash that took out trade team-mate but international rival Megan Guarnier around the halfway mark (“It was a pretty hard one and I thought my race was over”) Blaak found herself out front on the final lap, along with Great Britain’s Hannah Barnes and the French rider Audrey Cordon.
Knowing the strength of Barnes’ sprint, and that second place would not be good enough, Blaak opted not to ride “full”. This allowed another small group including Van der Breggen and Van Vleuten to jump across from the peloton. And then there were seven.
“If you are with three in a break of seven, there’s only one tactic – just start attacking,” Blaak says. And that’s exactly what they did. The first to have a go was Van Vleuten “but it didn’t really work, because she was one of the favourites so of course they react directly.” With 8.1km to the line, Blaak spotted her own opportunity, surged around the six riders ahead of her, “and I was gone.”
Asked if her lower profile made it easier to slip away, Blaak says the fact
that she had already been riding at the head of the race for some time was probably a bigger factor. She also points out that she was almost dropped on the final ascent of Salmon Hill, so it was reasonable for the others to assume she didn’t have to strength to take it all the way.
She didn’t believe it herself until some way down the road: “When I heard on the radio I had a time gap of twenty seconds, I thought okay. We had some cobbles, and after that it was a little bit up… I thought if I survive that, then I believe I can win.”
She survived. Behind her Barnes, Cordon, Kasia Niewiadoma and the Australian Katrin Garfoot hesitated, none wanting to be the one to give her rivals – including two other Dutch riders – a tow to the finish. Blaak crossed the line with a 28 second advantage and no other rider in sight.
As she looks back on how it all unfolded, Blaak sounds as proud of the team’s flawless execution of their plan as she does her own performance and success: “People say it’s hard in a team like Holland, because we are all strong. I also think we showed… that we can race aggressively with many riders and finish it.”
How does she feel looking forward, as she prepares to race in that distinctive World Champions uniform for the first time?
“I can feel already that it makes me more motivated. Next year I can show the jersey, and I want to show it in a good way. Not that I have the pressure to win more, more that I want to show that I’m strong.”
Blaak agrees that such a big win has elevated her standing in the peloton, but insists it hasn’t changed her as a person or a rider: “I have a status now, that’s the difference, but in the end I’m still the same Chantal.”