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Armitstead brings rainbow win count to two

SIENA, Italy (VN) — World champion Elizabeth Armitstead’s win at Strade Bianche Saturday was her third victory in three consecutive outings. Her rainbow jersey-winning ride in Richmond in September was her final race of 2015 and last week she opened her season at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, winning the race following a 10-kilometer break.

In a move reminiscent of last week’s win in Belgium, the British 27-year-old escaped the peloton with just over 20km to ride. Where last week she had one companion who was eventually dropped, this time around she was with Sweden’s Emma Johansson (Wiggle High5) and upcoming Polish star Kasia Niewiadoma (Rabo-Liv). With Armitstead and Niewiadoma doing most of the pulling, the three arrived together at the bottom of the final climb of Siena’s Via Santa Caterina to battle for the win, with Armitstead eventually winning in Piazza del Campo by thee seconds ahead of Niewiadoma.

“It was an interesting race,” Armitstead said. “There were lots of different breakaways, my teammate, Nikki Harris was in the break so I could be relaxed in the peloton. When Kasia attacked I knew then I had to follow. Me and Kasia worked to the final climb, Emma didn’t do anything, but to be honest I don’t think she had the legs.”

Despite emerging victorious on the day, Armitstead said her race-winning approach to the finale came about organically. “Not really,” she said when asked if it had been the plan for her to try to take the victory. “Today was about the team win and not specifically me. I just had good legs and was in the right place at the right time.”

It was an unusually late start to the season for the world champion. Armitstead won the Ladies Tour of Qatar last year but chose not to defend her title this season in order to mitigate what will be a long racing campaign, one which will include a tilt at the Olympic title in August.

Armitstead bagged the silver medal in London behind Dutchwoman Marianne Vos four years ago and is determined to take gold come August. She visited Rio last year to recon the course, one she describes as brutal, and has been working on her climbing during her off-season, which was longer than normal, and blighted by illness in late December.

Off to a flying start to 2016, the Brit has already enjoyed two excellent seasons in a row. In 2014 she achieved a new level of consistency en route to an overall win in the women’s World Cup series, and last year that consistency was transformed into even more victories. She won ten times in 2015, marking her best ever season, and successfully defended her World Cup crown in the last year of the series’ existence.

That competition has been replaced by the Women’s WorldTour, of which today’s Strade Bianche was the inaugural event. As opposed to the World Cup, which was composed of ten days of racing, the WorldTour calendar counts 35. That includes including stage races, making it perhaps not a series Armitstead can win, despite her scintillating start to the year.

“It’s not something I’ll be targeting,” she said after today’s victory, “Particularly in an Olympic year, no way. I need to have those dips in form to have those peaks.

One race she will be targeting is April’s Tour of Flanders. She has come close before, finishing second behind Dutch teammate Ellen van Dijk in 2014, but it is a race she covets.

Despite illness around Christmastime last year, Armitstead has emerged from the winter in top form and, judging by her performances so far, she is on track to meet her ambitions. Though she complained of a lack of punch in her legs on the Belgian bergs last week, today’s win must go some way to comfort her as Flanders approaches.

“My legs are better today, a little better than expected. Training has been going good, but not really this good, so I am excited, but there is room for improvement,” she said.

With plenty more racing on the horizon, 2016 could be even better for Lizzie Armitstead, who for now enjoys a 100 percent win rate in the rainbow stripes.