Cromwell scorches to victory in Omloop het Nieuwsblad

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South Australian sprinter Tiffany Cromwell is on fire after winning the first European women’s race of the season, Omloop het Nieuwsblad. Her Orica-AIS teammate Emma Johansson, a former winner of the race, finished third.

Cromwell defeated American rival Megan Guarnier (Rabobank) in a long sprint, eventually gaining a gap of three seconds. The pair had attacked just before the final section of pave, leaving the chase group dangling 12 seconds behind.

Winning this race shows how tough Cromwell is. The weekend was bitterly cold across Europe, with temperatures below freezing during the 125km race, and icy headwinds making long range attacks extremely difficult.

Combine the freezing conditions with the cobbled pave sections of the race, and you can imagine how strong you need to be to win a race like this. It’s especially satisfying given the 24-year old Cromwell hasn’t had a huge amount of experience in these conditions – you don’t race in sub-zero temperatures much, growing up in Adelaide.

In fact, conditions don’t get much tougher in Europe, as demonstrated by the cancellation of Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and GP Lugano races, buried underneath heavy snow.

Fortunately both the men’s and women’s editions of Omloop het Nieuwsblad were raced in cold but dry conditions, but it’s not all that often you see a road race with everyone in long tights, arm warmers, full gloves, shoe covers, gillets, beanies and neck warmers.

When the Belgians are rugged up, you really know it’s brass monkeys outside.

Orica-AIS undoubtedly benefited from the experience of Loes Gunnewijk, who has twice won the Omloop, and Johansson, the 2012 winner. Australian road champion Gracie Elvin was also in the finishing group, leading out Johansson in the bunch sprint.

With three teammates in the front group, Cromwell was free to attack without risking a victory for the team, and she grabbed her opportunity with both long-fingered gloves.

That sort of experience and depth is priceless in tough conditions, and the team deserves credit for ensuring their strong start to 2013 continues on from an excellent team performance in diametrically opposite conditions in Qatar.

Interviewed by Belgium’s Sporza TV after the race, Cromwell commented on the conditions:

β€œIt was horrible, it was so cold but luckily I had enough warm clothes. It took a while to warm up.”

Asked how she liked the cobbled races, Cromwell was effusive:

β€œI love these races. They’re hard, but if you’ve got the power… and I like the technical aspect of it, it proves that it’s the strongest and smartest that wins.”

And that’s just it; Cromwell was the toughest on the day, despite suffering through that special combination of biting cold and jarring cobblestones that makes your hands ache to the bone, and your muscles feel like dead slabs of mutton hanging in a butcher’s refrigerator.

So Cromwell is tough, daring, and in form. She’s a good chance to win another classic or two, with some luck.

The women’s circuit spends most of the next two months in Belgium and Holland, with a brief trip to Italy in late March for the Trofeo Alfredo Binda.

With her freshly polished enthusiasm for the cobbled classics, Cromwell should be aiming for the women’s Tour of Flanders (March 31) and Fleche Wallone (April 17), as starting points. Where the finishing point is, who knows.

Tiffany Cromwell is definitely one to watch.

Tim Renowden has been following professional cycling closely since Indurain won his first Tour. An ex-runner, now a club grade bike racer, Tim tweets about sport at @megabicicleta.
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